Surrounded by memories and memorabilia, she awaits her 95th birthday tomorrow (June 13). Wisps of memories come floating by as Christobel Weerasinghe turns back the treasured pages of time while also showing off this and that sepia-toned photograph lining the walls of her home down Barnes Place in Colombo 7. “I am not having a [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Chrissie’s cherished memories

The wife of the ‘Father of Town Planning’ and former Cultural Ambassador Christobel Weerasinghe who celebrates her 95th birthday tomorrow, has much to look back on

Christobel: A contented nonagenarian. Pix by Amila Gamage

Surrounded by memories and memorabilia, she awaits her 95th birthday tomorrow (June 13).

Wisps of memories come floating by as Christobel Weerasinghe turns back the treasured pages of time while also showing off this and that sepia-toned photograph lining the walls of her home down Barnes Place in Colombo 7.

“I am not having a party,” she smiles, while relatives explain that her daughter Menakka who lives abroad will be with her a few days later. Frail, she may be, but she is quick to play the part of the perfect hostess, insisting that her helpers should offer us a soft drink.

Chrissie, as she is called by her closest kith and kin, is not only the daughter of a famous politician but also the wife of an eminent professional. She is the only daughter of the late Sir Henry Kotelawala (former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala’s relative), who had an unbroken record of 26 successive years as a member of the then Legislative Council, while her husband was none other than the distinguished Oliver Weerasinghe, Sri Lanka’s first Town Planner.

Dubbed the ‘Father of Town Planning’ in this country, Oliver had studied architecture under the eminent Sir Patrick Abercrombie at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom and gained wide acclaim for planning and developing the new city of Anuradhapura, designing the new wing of Lake House and the University of Peradeniya set amid beautifully landscaped gardens.

A portrait of Christobel

Chrissie’s paternal grandfather was originally from Bandaragama but having married a Kandyan whose lineage could be traced to Uda Rata royalty, had made his home in Badulla. “Two schools my family set up in Badulla,” says Chrissie, with the names slipping her mind to be jogged by her carer who is from there. We learn that established a long time ago to provide an English education to the children of Badulla, now Dharmadutha Boys’ School has 3,000 students and Sujatha Maha Vidyalaya 2,500 students.

Memories flow forth………Chrissie being boarded at the Ladies’ College hostel at the tender age of seven and losing her mother, Evelyn Bulathsinhala, whom she remembers playing the piano and singing, when she was just 16.

A tinge of sadness is apparent as she recalls how she had everything but “never felt loved” as her father was a strict disciplinarian. She and Oliver, however, did parenting differently, showering love on their daughter Menakka and son Rohan. Now, having their own families, they are top professionals in the United States of America (USA), with Menakka working with her husband Essel Bailey in private investments, while Rohan is General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Citi, a leading global bank.

When Chrissie felt drawn to Christianity at Ladies’ College, on her father’s insistence that she study Buddhism before making such a life-changing decision, she was sent to Visakha Vidyalaya.

It seemed like destiny, for it was at Visakha Vidyalaya that the music-and-dance loving Chrissie was one of the stars of the very first operetta, ‘La Boheme’ (Bohemian Girl), oblivious to the presence of her husband-to-be Oliver in the audience along with newspaper doyen, D.R. Wijewardene.

Her teachers had been of the view that “naughty Chrissie” who did what she wanted should be given in marriage to “an understanding husband”. Yes, says Chrissie, he was the most “wonderful husband” and nowhere in the world could she have found anyone better. The wedding in 1943 at Bandarawela was a grand affair and while she had to be prim and proper, everyone else danced the time away.

A precious photograph: Christobel flanked (from left) by WFUNA President Dr. Adrian Pelt, UN Secretary-General U. Thant, L.H. Horace Perera and WFUNA Representative to the UN, Hilary Barratt-Brown in the 1960s

A life full of activity followed including a long stay in the US when Oliver took up a prestigious posting in the United Nations as Chief of the Bureau of Social Affairs in Housing, Building and Planning, followed by a stint as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US.

It was not just lunches, dinners and partying for Chrissie as a trophy wife of a top UN official and later Sri Lankan diplomat, for she had made a niche for herself as an Alternate Representative and Cultural Ambassador in the 1960s.

Elegantly-clad in sari, Chrissie would be very much a part of the volunteer team at the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), the principal non-governmental organization supporting the UN. Having been introduced to WFUNA Representative Hilary Barratt-Brown by Sri Lanka’s first Permanent Representative to the UN, R.S.S. Gunewardene, she assisted him in his work, particularly in lecturing on behalf of the Speakers’ Bureau to women’s organizations on WFUNA work and on the ‘Role of women in Sri Lanka’.

Invited by United Nations Radio, she also conducted a weekly children’s programme, ‘Tales from the East’ on WBAI Pacifica Foundation, which had been nominated for the prestigious Peabody Award. This is a programme that she continued at the American University WAMU Radio, even when she accompanied her husband to Washington DC when he took up his posting as the Sri Lankan Envoy there.

Oliver and Christobel showered love on daughter Menakka and son Rohan

With helping others ingrained in her very system, she had also produced six records titled ‘Life and Culture of Different Lands’ for children, ‘transporting’ them through her descriptions to Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Israel and the Arab world. The royalties of this collaboration among UNICEF, UNESCO and herself had been channelled to UNICEF.

On her return to Sri Lanka, not content with idling, Chrissie had taught dancing, rhythm and English nursery rhymes at two day-care centres for underprivileged children in Colombo.

Cherishing all these memories, Chrissie is a contented nonagenarian who sits in her favourite chair every morning, looking out into the garden around her Barnes Place home, landscaped by her beloved Oliver who is
no more.


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