21st September 1997


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Goolbai Gunasekera’s new book Chosen Ground - Part 9

Grace under pressure was her motto

Our publication of the first extracts of Goolbai Gunasekera’s new book, ‘Chosen Ground’ concludes this week. ‘Chosen Ground’ – the story of a pioneering educationist, Clara Motwani, will be launched shortly.

Within two years of coming to Sri Lanka mother began her career of public service which went far beyond the confines of her work in Visakha. She began to engage herself actively in the education of the island and the British Directors of Education found her views always refreshing.

In the course of 55 years she sat on 82 Committees. She introduced the study of Buddhism into private Buddhist schools and placed it on the school’s time table. Home Science was, of course, one of her pioneering efforts.

When she was Principal of Musaeus College, she had a great friendship going with Dr. Howes, the soon-to-retire English Director of Education.

He lived just a stone’s throw away from the school and from the Principal’s house on Rosmead Place.

Each evening Dr. Howes would set out for his evening’s constitutional at the very time Mother would be leaving her office for the short walk up the road. They would often meet and chat as they walked along. Now Dr. Howes was rather short and somewhat portly while Mother was very tall and slim. Father would watch them through his study window. “There comes the long and short of education,” he would remark to us girls. We rolled about convulsed.

Mother would hear our shrieks up to the gate. She knew all too well what caused the hilarity. “I do wish you wouldn’t,” she’d say annoyedly to father. “I’m sure Dr. Howes can hear you.”

“No he can’t,” father would tell her. “He’s too busy gazing heavenward trying to catch what you are saying.” It could correctly be assumed that Father did not think too highly of British educators. We always felt this was because of his Indian antipathy to British institutions and his tremendous bias in favour of America.

Mother soon learnt that Sri Lanka had the highest literacy rate in Asia. During her extensive travels abroad with father, she often wondered if Ceylon did not have the highest literacy rate in the world. Once in Italy she came across a group of women who had never been to school and had no idea how to read. Thanks to the Buddhist monks and the education of the temple schools, Sinhalese and Tamil children were being educated as a matter of course.

The British must also be credited with furthering a certain kind of education which was aimed at making us good little colonials. Mother was not altogether in ‘sync’ with such methods.

One of Mother’s most enduring legacies was the founding of the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women in 1941 of which she was the first President. Dr. Lorna Devaraja writes, “The enthusiastic women who got together in 1941, inspired by noble ideals were either graduates of foreign universities or foreigners who for some reason or the other were attracted to Sri Lanka (like Mrs. Motwani) and made it their home ... Mrs. Clara Motwani was the Principal and Founder of several Buddhist Girls Schools and it is interesting to note that her daughter, Goolbai Gunasekera and her grand-daughter, Khulsum Edirisinghe, are both life members of the Association she founded.”

The SLFUW is today one of the most influential women’s associations in the country. It has produced some of Sri Lanka’s most famous women. The list of members reads rather like a roll-call of distinguished citizens.

To mention a few, Mrs. Doreen Wickremasinghe, Mrs. Hilda Kularatne, Mrs. Susan George Pulimood, Mrs. Mahes Candiah, Mrs. Jezima Ismail, Miss Chandra de Soysa, Dr. Wimala de Silva, Mrs. Manel Abeysekera, Dr. Lorna Devaraja etc. There are academics, writers, diplomats, doctors, lawyers, educationists ... (you name it) on the membership list. The names and careers of these marvellous women are too numerous to mention here.

Mother had done Child Psychology as a sideline to one of her Degrees and she was now able to put her theories into practice. As her first born I became her favourite guinea pig but more of that tale later. For the moment she began a long and fruitful association with the famous Dr.W.S. Ratnavale of the Rotherfield Psychology Clinic in Colombo. She was a founder member of this Centre which did so much good in Sri Lanka. It might be relevant to mention here that Mother sent me to Dr. Ratnavale when I was 7 years old since she felt I was becoming too ‘academic’. Dr. Ratnavale’s treatment might be of interest. He suggested to Mother that she keep me out of school for a year or two and concentrate on allowing me to learn the piano, to paint (a vain hope) and play more with children of my own age. Mother followed her oracle to the letter and I think I have both these Child Psychology experts to thank because eventually I did, in fact, become a more ‘normal’ personality - a comment disputed by my irreverent family on a day to day basis.

Mother was invited to join almost every Educational Board in the country. She also sat on the American Fulbright-Scholarship Committee and many of today’s post graduate scholars remember their interviews with her and the Committee with nostalgia. When I applied for a Fulbright myself, mother offered - in fact insisted - that she should not be present. She always felt that I was awarded my Scholarship because I was her daughter - a view which I certainly did not share. Nonetheless an early marriage prevented me from accepting the Fulbright. Strangely enough mother did not mind this at all. She put a premium on personal happiness and not on academic qualification.

As we grew older, Su and I would have preferred to have had more of Mother’s company. “Can’t you just RELAX mother,” we would say viewing her daily schedule with disbelief. We were children of Sri Lanka and our personal clocks tick-tocked at a far slower pace than that of our motivated American mother. Mother would wiggle her fingers at us. “I’m quite relaxed,” she would say. “It might be a good idea if you two young idlers bestirred yourselves a little more.”

It was a fact that mother was relaxed. She epitomised that saying that “Grace under pressure” was possible. Truth to tell, mother was rarely agitated.

The only time she was completely shattered was when the news reached her that one of her pupils in Buddhist Ladies College had been drowned off the coast of Galle on a class picnic. Malini Gurusinghe had been a bright, lively and clever student. The Gurusinghe sisters were all pupils of Buddhist Ladies and it took Mother months to get over the pain of Malini’s loss and the feeling that somehow she had been responsible for this untimely and tragic death of a young girl.

Just recently, an applicant for the job of School Nurse at Asian International told me that she used to see my mother 40 odd years ago at meetings of the Nursing School Board. “Whatever was she doing there?” I inquired. “She was responsible for the suggestion that American experts should be brought down for nurse trainees,” I was told. Her suggestion was adopted. Many years later I met one of these American experts in Arizona. Miss Dorothy Sutherland is still remembered by the nurses who passed through her capable hands in Sri Lanka.

Mother was Chairperson of so many committees and a member of so many associations. I feel that naming them all serves no purpose. Her influence ranged far afield. The Badulla Convent would often ask her to come up for a weekend (at the school’s expense) in order to streamline the curriculum. Mother did the same for a Matale school under the well-loved principal Miss Armand. A school in Jaffna followed suit but it was a two year contract and mother’s commitment to the wonderful and hardworking girls of Jaffna was a strong one. My1, 1/2 years in Jaffna were among the happiest I’ve ever spent.

Whatever Committees mother handled she was always totally involved. The Government appointed her to many of their own Advisory Boards. One of mother’s strong recommendations was the one-session school which is now common everywhere. The Ministry of Education enlisted her support regularly to conduct Refresher Courses for teachers. She served for years as a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education. She was Chairman of the Ceylon Teachers’ Examination Board. The Colombo Teachers’ Association elected her President while the Head Mistresses Association elected her to the University Senate.

All this activity did not really interest her two daughters. We had a far more personal problem to deal with. As daughters of so well known an educationist our lives were not made easy by the personal comments of our own school teachers. Mother rarely sent us to schools she headed assuming (quite correctly) that the daughters of a Principal would either be over-favoured or over-ignored by teachers anxious not to show bias. She had a further theory that sisters should not be sent to the same institution since one might overshadow the other in performance.

Accordingly Su and I were separated. She went to St. Bridgets all her life while I went to about eight schools in Sri Lanka, India, and America depending on whatever theory mother was trying to prove at the time. Our teachers were one and all devoted to mother’s views and listened to her regular radio talks as assiduously as did the Greeks to the Delphic Oracle. Came an ordinary Monday morning, Mother had been on the Air the previous night telling the whole world about “a little girl I know” and recounting how she dealt with some childish aberration.

“So Goolbai my dear,” my sarcastic Form Teacher at Bishops would lead off, “I understand your dear Mother had to starve you for a day before you learnt to eat what you were given?” Her eyes glinted behind thick bifocals. Miss Cockburn was probably the nastiest teacher ever to walk the corridors of Bishops. She was also one of the finest teachers to do so.

“It wasn’t me miss,” I’d answer desperately, “it must have been my sister.”

Miss Cockburn was not done. “Does your little mind stretch as far back as to when you were four years old when your brain cannot retain what was explained to you IN DETAIL a bare four minutes ago?” The senior class giggled dutifully. “Ah my dear,” she went on silkily, “WHAT a disappointment you must be to your dear Mother.” I opened my mouth to reply.

“Not a word you young idler. You may sit.”

Totally demoralised we complained in vain to mother to tone down her remarks about “little girls she knew.” Mother looked innocent. “But I know hundreds of little girls. Why should anyone assume I mean you two?” We snorted. “In fact,” she went on, “there are far more interesting cases in my note books than your girlish infractions.” She gave us a sharp look and then smiled kindly. “Cheer up you two. Look at the humour of it all.” .... and it is true, we DID learn to look on the funny side of things - something that has stood Su and me in good stead whenever life got tough.

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