A single thread can lead to a fascinating weave. Thus a shared childhood memory of a group opened up the rich tapestry of life of a determined woman who crossed the centenarian line last Friday, April 24. Corrine Zain has always held a special place in the hearts of the former students of St. Paul’s [...]


Strains of a Minuet in G waft through a time gone by

An old photograph leads to unforgettable memories of the life of a vivacious centenarian, writes Daleena Samara

Corrine the ballerina at 13: Following her passion for dancing at the Marjorie Sample School Of Ballet

A single thread can lead to a fascinating weave. Thus a shared childhood memory of a group opened up the rich tapestry of life of a determined woman who crossed the centenarian line last Friday, April 24.

Corrine Zain has always held a special place in the hearts of the former students of St. Paul’s Baptist Girls’ School, located behind St Luke’s Church in Borella in the 1940s. She taught both English and dance there for a year, leaving her students with a lifetime of memories. One in particular, a dance to Bach’s Minuet in G, surfaced at a gathering attended by two of the eight girls who participated.

A faded photograph of that performance was brought out, along with the memories it carried. The women, now in their 80’s, reminisced. Corrine was tall and beautiful, said Fareena Musafer, one of the dancers, along with Kumala Ameer  who recalled how they went to Corrine’s sprawling home in Temple Road, Maradana, a genteel district at the time, to fit on their costumes and practise their dance moves. “We stuffed the skirts with newspaper to make them puff up,” recalled Kumala, who was just 14 at the time.

Last week, the name ‘Corrine Zain’ surfaced again when another photograph of the Minuet in G arrived in this writer’s Whatsapp inbox. Corrine was on the brink of becoming a centenarian and her loved ones were planning a surprise video that included the photo and other mementoes.

Corrine had emigrated to Singapore in 1951 and was still living there, they said. Singapore had brought out more facets of this extraordinary woman: she had been a model, social worker and a marriage counsellor. Her list of accomplishments banished misconceptions that women of her time were only homemakers.

Interviewing her was a concern because of her frail health. Relatives said she tired easily. Sister Kotha, 86, also an achiever who followed her passion for sports by qualifying as a physical education teacher in India, would fill in the gaps, while the daughter of another sister, Laila, supported. In fact, the Packeer family seemed exceptional; Laila was one of Ceylon’s first policewomen, while Shireen, another sister, graduated in nursing education. One of the boys, Akbar, was Assistant Director of the Wildlife Department for long years. Corrine herself agreed to write down her answers, which she sent us in beautifully handwritten script, a succinct biography on one page reflecting keen lucidity.

Centenarian: Corrine today

Corrine grew up in the era when cattle-drawn buggy carts plied Galle Road, alongside cars, double-decker buses and bullock carts. The eldest in a family of nine girls and two boys, she was spirited, volunteering as a key telephonist during World War II. Her father was the Chief Inspector of Police, Samsudeen Packeer. Sitting in the Air Raid Office in Kotahena, she and her sister Binthan tapped out Morse code records of armoured vehicles involved in accidents, all day long.

After the war, she threw herself into her passion for English. Graduating from Clifton Girls’ High School (now Clifton Balika Vidyalaya) in Maradana, where she and her sisters schooled, she joined the English Teacher Training Institute (now the National Institute of Education) in Maharagama, setting her sights on teaching the language. Two years later, she joined the staff of St Paul’s Baptist Girls’ School in Borella as an English teacher, where her dance talents were also put to good use. An all-island performance was a high point on the school calendar that year, with their performance, the Minuet in G ranking high for excellence. The young students enthusiastically participated in the dances Corinne created and choreographed, and for which she even designed the wardrobe.

A faded news-clipping gave a window into Corrine’s stage persona. Not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, she had brushed aside initial protests from family to follow her love of dance at the Marjorie Sample School of Dance down Elibank Road in Bambalapitiya,  where she learned ballet, tap dance, and formation dance. From then on, she participated in numerous Marjorie Sample performances, and took her passion with her to the schools at which she taught.

After a year at St Paul’s, Corrine took up an appointment at Clifton Girls’ High School to teach both English and dancing. Here too it was  a long list of dance programmes that Corrine created for her students. A highlight was Dusk to Dawn, a ballet that won a national prize for Clifton.

Then in 1951, a new chapter began when she married Tuan Sabeer Zain, a police inspector from Singapore, who whisked her away to the Lion City. The sudden departure opened up new horizons, in Kotha’s words, a “grand” life.

The photo of the Minuet in G that led to a trail of memories: Sisters Fareena Musafer and Kumala Ameer (nee Cassiere) are on the left, while the Perera sisters, Jean and Corrine, daughters of former Miss Ceylon Camilla Perera, are on the right

In Singapore, Corrine learned professional modelling at the Singapore Model Academy and walked down many a catwalk for a number of years. She also studied Advanced French and psychology. In 1953, she joined the Singapore Ministry of Social Affairs, embarking on a 23-year career that started in research and led her into marriage counselling. The counselling course was government sponsored and she says she topped a batch of 67 students. Kotha also says Sabeer was extensively involved in social work helping orphans not only in Singapore but overseas, and Corrine was always by his side in these activities.

Throughout, Ceylon was never far from Corrine’s heart. She would visit twice or thrice a year, and during the lean times of the Bandaranaike socialist reforms, would arrive laden with goods for the family.

Her greatest undertaking, raising her two children Azad and Rowena, narrowed down her interests. “I had to give up some activities to be a mother to my children,” she wrote. But it was worth the sacrifice: “My husband and children were a happy family.”

Tuan Sabeer passed away a few years ago, and Corrine now lives with her companion Hawa Khan in Singapore. Having reached a grand century in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, she imparts a message of simplicity: “Be patient and kind with others. Lead a simple life.” Of following one’s dreams, she has this to say: “What you do, do well, and remember that the best is yet to be.”

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