This morning I saw a heron on a London canal. It flew out of some reeds and landed on a nearby barge. I would normally have taken a photo of the bird and sent it to my friend Mala. It was just an ordinary grey heron, but her reply would have lifted the gloom of [...]


For Mala, every human story was worthy of attention

Sonali Deraniyagala remembers her friend, anthropologist and activist Malathi de Alwis

This morning I saw a heron on a London canal. It flew out of some reeds and landed on a nearby barge. I would normally have taken a photo of the bird and sent it to my friend Mala. It was just an ordinary grey heron, but her reply would have lifted the gloom of a lockdown Sunday. She might have seen sunlight hidden under the bird’s raised wing. Or noticed how the contours of its feathers fused with ripples on the water. She would have responded with an excitement that made the heron look miraculous. But the winter air coming off the water felt icier this morning because I didn’t have Mala to send my photo to.

Malathi, one early morning in Wilpattu. Pic by Pradeep Jeganathan

Malathi de Alwis died on January 21, aged 57.  We were friends since we were both seven years old. Her death has left me bereft, as it has so many others in Sri Lanka and around the world.

The many tributes to Mala have talked of her brilliance as a scholar, her pathbreaking reach as an anthropologist, her huge inspirational power as a teacher and activist.

Mala was all of this. But what made her rare and beautiful was a quality that infused everything she did. Mala could find wonder and astonishment in the ordinary. She could find value in the small details of everyday life. And this was because Mala really knew how to look at our world. She could do this better than anyone else I know.  And ‘looking’ was not just something she did with scrupulous and practised eye – she did it with her entire, finetuned, being.

For me, this made Mala a vast, immense soul.

Just as she could see the slant of light that made a heron magical, she could find some small suggestion in a human story that at once lifted it and gave it power. In her scholarly work and activism her concerns were big – feminism, war, disasters, memory – but she could pick on a sharp human detail that blasted open our understanding of these issues.

For Mala, every human story was worthy of attention.

I remember one she told me. It was about a woman she interviewed when doing research in northern Sri Lanka, after the war. This woman had a long scar on her face, and she described how her jaw had been shattered by shellfire. She talked about spending many months in a hospital in the south having repeated surgery, unable to speak, alone. The nurses sometimes stroked her head and expressed loud pity about her muteness, but they never showed any interest in her life. This woman told Mala how reduced she felt by this. She recalled saying to herself – “there are worlds in my head these people will never know about.”

When I heard this, I felt Mala was the ideal person to now receive her story.  From a scar on a jaw, she could release a world.

And she could see a world in a layer of dust.

Another story. When she was researching memorialisation, Mala interviewed a man whose wife and daughter had been killed in the tsunami. He had recently remarried, and his new wife sat with them as they talked. When she left the room, he brought out a photo album and showed Mala pictures of his family who had died.  Even as he seemed relieved to do this, Mala noticed that the album was covered in dust – he hadn’t looked at it for some time. In that thin film of dust, Mala understood many dimensions of memory – our need for it, the pressures we face to side-step it, the limits to how much memory we can tolerate.

It was this deep intelligence of the soul that Mala brought to the project and accompanying book she initiated and curated – ‘Archive of Memory’.  It explored 70 years of Independence in Sri Lanka by gathering immense stories from small things. Seventy individuals talk about an object they value -often something simple, a suitcase, a pencil – and we are brought right up close to national events that are variously joyous, horrific, celebratory, shameful. These objects line up, one after the other, to form the most electrifying telling of Sri Lankan history – not just of events, but of emotions.

My first memory of Mala connects to an object. It was a wildlife documentary that her parents screened at her seventh birthday party in the lush garden of their home on School Lane. I was blown away -I had never seen a movie in a garden before, I’d barely seen a movie.

Nature, of course, was a constant in Mala’s life. She was an ardent naturalist and an environmentalist. But she was also more than this. She was a pilgrim of the wild. Its abundance of tiny details nourished her. So often, with our friends Caryll and Mary-Anne, we’d linger for hours by a villu in Wilpattu. And Mala would be in rapture – no camera, just her own shutters open wide. To us, it seemed like she could switch senses in the jungle – one sense doing the work of another. It was as if her eyes could hear a twig snap on a distant lunuwarana tree, her ears could see an eagle blurred by cloud.

After the inexorable force of nature turned on me in 2004 and my family was taken in the tsunami, Mala was a constant in my life. She encouraged me to find balance in wild places and empty landscapes – we even went to sub-arctic Sweden in deepest winter – and she was my regular companion, her inner vastness quiet beside my grief.

Once, during this time, she called me to a window – we were at my family home in London.  It was a cold evening and the window was misting up from the inside. She pointed to a heart- shaped smudge on the window, it was clear, no mist. She figured out that this would have been drawn by my younger son’s greasy finger. Still present, after years.

That was Mala. With her art of looking, she showed me my world.

Mala was sensitive to our world because she loved it fiercely. And love too is made up of small details. In her work, when she did field research among those who had sorrow and pain, she gave back with acts of kindness and decency. And us, her friends, she loved with her generosity. She shared with us, invited us in to experience everything that thrilled and moved her. We were blessed.

Most days, I would wake to a message on my phone from Mala. In this last year, when I’ve been confined in London with the pandemic, her dispatches always entertained or elevated me.

And now. What a huge gap there is in our world.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.