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It is not infrequent today for people to refer to her as a national treasure. Celebrating her eighty first birthday on Thursday April 17, Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike is today the undisputed Elder Stateswoman not only in this country but also in South Asia as well. She may not seem as vigorously active as she was, but still she retains a strong command and a highly tuned intuitiveness about the many nuances of politics.
When Kolonnawa went up in flames or there was unmistakable thuggery in the offing before the recently concluded local polls, Ms. Bandaranaike made it clear that her political clout had withstood time and illness, as she intervened and expressed her displeasure.
Her charisma has not dimmed through the years, but on the contrary has grown. Men and women cluster around her wherever she goes and many make the trek to Rosmead Place just to worship her with folded hands.
Ms. Bandaranaikes political record is unmatched worldwide. She has been the first woman Prime Minister in the world, and in all Prime Minister thrice. In 1994 she was sworn in by her daughter Chandrika as Prime Minister. It is perhaps the only time in recorded history in the world that a daughter has sworn in her mother as Prime Minister. She could undoubtedly be proud that her daughter became Sri Lankas first woman Executive President. Her only son Anura has been the Leader of the Opposition and today holds the confidence of the present Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe. Her eldest daughter Sunethra, Oxford qualified is interested in the local arts and architecture and above all, looks after the health of a cherished mother.
As a young girl growing up in Balangoda and keeping to the traditions and mores of that time Sirimavo never sought or even dreamed of a future in politics.
There was a family friend, a lady who used to read the palm, a Mrs. Gomes, Clarice was her first name I believe, who told me that she had predicted to a bewildered young Sirimavo that she would attain great heights in politics.
She married the Oxford educated splendid orator S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was a Minister when he married her.
As a politicians wife Sirimavo never obtruded but remained in the background, looking after him and her three young children.
An assassins bullet changed her life and she found herself a relatively young widow. She consented to lead her husbands young party, winning the July 1960 general elections with a majority.
Ms. Bandaranaike has been admired for her womanly ways, strong character and feminine charm. But beneath it all she has a razor sharp mind. She successfully foiled a coup by men of the forces in 1962 and she recalls they were supported covertly by opposition politicians.
On April 5, 1971 Sri Lanka experienced one of the most turbulent periods in her history when young men calling themselves the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna sought to take her as prisoner and topple the duly elected government.
This was the first taste of terrorism in Sri Lanka and that irrepressible statesman Sir John Kotelawala said at the time that she was the only man in that Cabinet. She did not show fear, but coolly dealt with the situation when strong men were quailing under the impact.
She called upon the misguided youth to lay down arms and she said as a mother she was ready to forgive them.
There was much shooting and cross shooting and both men from the forces and the young rebels died. But she brought things under control. Today one of the JVP members is a Deputy Minister in her daughters government and the JVP has emerged as a sober Third Force in national politics ousting the traditional left, the Communists and the LSSP.
Ms. Bandaranaike retains all the traditional values instilled in her as a child. She is intensely religious and tenaciously clings to all customs and traditions such as observing the Sinhala New Year with its numerous trappings and requirements which have been handed down through hundreds of years.
She does get angry and feels strongly when injustice is done such as when she was deprived of her civic rights in 1980 by President Jayewardenes Government, making the worlds first woman Prime Minister politically a non person. It was an ironic move. Sirimavo was angry but not for long. She overcame her disability by buckling down to inspire and rejuvenate her party.
Today in the evening of her life, Ms. Bandaranaike can look back with a sense of achievement. From 1970 to 1977 she made a vital impact in world politics.
She hosted the 5th Non-Aligned conference in August 4, 1976.
A flaw that marred her governance was when she took over the Associated Newspapers, the largest newspaper group in the country and closed for a time the Sun Group of newspapers. She has admitted that in that instance she followed the promptings of her Marxist allies.
Today she is the much loved Queen Mother of Sri Lanka. She rarely makes appearances but when she does, both the very rich and the very poor are glad to see her and pay their homage to her.
She is a pleasant young lady more like a school girl and one has to stretch ones imagination to picture her shuttling daily between two restaurants one at Havelock road, the Mandarin Grill and the other at Longdon Place the Mandarin Palace.
Renuka Fernando has got her priorities right. She gets up at 5.30 in the morning not to attend to her catering chores which she shares with her husband, but to attend to her two school going sons. "I have a daily who comes into cook, but I attend to their breakfast and pack their food for school".
With a smile she admitted that though her daily work entails planning Executive lunches, buffet lunches, home delivery and catering for parties, she cannot cook herself. "But it does not matter, I have two very efficient chefs at both places."
"After my daily workout at the gym from 7 to 8 in the morning I arrive at the restaurants. I first look into the purchasing orders written by the kitchen staff. Now this I consider as my forte. I scrutinize the purchase list and add or subtract as I think necessary. I keep close contact with all my suppliers on a daily basis.
"Yes I do haggle with the fish suppliers about prices and often visit the market in Pettah just to be personally conversant with current and fluctuating prices of vegetables." Renuka said.
"After I attend to the purchasing part, I am back home by 11 a.m. to do the cleaning up of my home and then await the return of my two sons. I like sharing lunch with them and after lunch I return to the restaurants. It is quite a bit of shuttling daily between the two places but I feel it is imperative. First supervision is a factor, but mainly to retain a rapport with the staff. For the last nine years my husband and I have run the places and the same two chefs as well as most of the staff have been with us. This is due to our excellent rapport with them," she said.
"My husband has been to Hotel School and he does the paper work and plans the menus. I was dragged into this business, but I must confess it absorbs my concentration and has proved to be a fascinating daily task.
"I go back home around five thirty in the evening and then spend my time with my sons. I sometimes do come back if there are special catering orders for parties and to have a look at the outdoor cafe which is open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
"The cafe is a pleasurable place even for children and guests can take their pick from vegetable kotthuroti, hoppers, gothamba roti and different sambols.
"I also keep busy daily attending to my Zonta work. I am the Secretary of Zonta Club too for the last three years. At present we are doing some village projects at Kurunegala.
"It is rewarding work not only money wise but in making friends and meeting a variety of people daily", said this young lady who has devoted herself fully both to her family and the family business.
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