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13th June 1999

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Miriam de Saram: Not a mere wanderer

By Peter Burleigh

An conversationIn the fall of 1968 there was a late south-western monsoon. It might have been late August. Whenever it was, reflecting an enthusiasm for ocean swimming and a naivete about its dangers at that time of year, I had gone to the beach just north of the Mount Lavinia Hotel as I often did during that initial time of my assignment in Ceylon. Despite the grey and cloudy sky, the thunderous waves, and a major undertow, I nevertheless plunged in foolishly alone in the stretch of beach, which is now seldom unpopulated.

I swam for half an hour or so, testing my skills and unconsciously, in retrospect, challenging the monsoonal sea. Resting on the beach in exhaustion and exhilaration, staring out to sea, I noticed to my surprise and curiosity another swimmer. He was doing what I had done, but with more skill and familiarity, and, I learned later, awareness of the danger.

The other swimmer was Skanda de Saram. After he emerged from the sea, we chatted and relaxed and, after a time, Skanda invited me home to meet his family. (Skanda's extended family, like so many in Sri Lanka, is a story in itself). But that first day of our acquaintance, only his mother was home. What a mother! Miriam (Peiris/Deraniyagala) de Saram who died March 13, 1999 at the age of 91, became an intellectual and social focal point for me, a young diplomat on a first assignment in an alien and exotic place. Unconventional, controversial, independent minded, erratic, talented, and tough-minded, Miriam de Saram had since childhood been a rebel. Daughter of Sir Paul E. Peiris (Deraniyagala), the historian and author as well as Ceylon's first Trade Commissioner in London, Miriam demonstrated her grit and determination when she insisted on becoming the first Ceylonese woman to study, master, and perform publicly, both Kandyan and South Indian dancing. (She appeared as an "exotic, oriental" dancer in Alexander Korda's famous film, "The Drum", starring Raymond Massey, Valerie Hobson and Sabu in 1937. When marriage outside the tightly delineated universe of family consent and approval was unthinkable, headstrong Miriam secretly married a handsome, tennis-playing lawyer, Robert De Saram. Essentially, though not permanently, outcast by her family for such a marriage (which occurred in London, when her father was Trade Commissioner), Miriam was unbendable; determined to make her own choices regardless of the consequences. The marriage produced Rohan, Skanda, Druvi and Niloo.

From day one of our acquaintance, something special transpired between Miriam and me. Miriam had studied deeply in both Hindu and Buddhist thought. Born and dying a Church of England Protestant, Miriam de Saram nevertheless pursued psychological and religious enlightenment - whatever its source and wherever it led. Thus, for me, she was a fascinating source of insights, adventures, and wisdom. She had studied with a Hindu saint in Jaffna, with Buddhist scholars around the island; she had travelled to India in search of knowledge into the multiple religious and spiritual disciplines there. (Readers will excuse me if I note that such searches were not for magico-religious gurus so popular now in Sri Lanka and India; they were for religious adepts who themselves were searching, reflective of the long history of Indian, including Buddhist, religious thought). When Miriam discovered I was interested in such issues, she shared with, and challenged me to open up to possibilities of self-knowledge and enlightenment, which flow from these Indian traditions.

She took delight in introducing me, through the culinary virtuosity of her longtime cook, William, to traditional Sinhalese cuisine.

Whether string hoppers, hoppers, or rice, every conceivable sambol, mouthscalding crab, cuttlefish, or lobster curries, fish balls and cutlets and curries, incredible vegetable dishes from vegetables I had never heard of, let alone tasted (snakegourd and ma-karal come to mind), ambul thiyal, coconut-laced lentils and other parippu dishes - what an introduction! And jaggery/hakkuru sweets; with curd for dessert.

Miriam also liked in drink, as I do. She introduced me to milk-wine, to shandies, even to scotch!

We would sit on the veranda of her then home at 61, Ward Place, sipping whatever, and talking for hours about Ceylon, its history, its politics (my job as third secretary at the U.S. Embassy at the time), its sociology, but, most all, its religious thought, as refracted through colonial religions, and indigenous traditions. I learned of Kataragama, of Adam's Peak, of caste distinctions among the Buddhist nikayas, of Carnatic music to be heard during the Vel festival at the devales on Galle Road; of Dutch Reformed cemeteries in Hulftsdorf where some family ancestors lay buried. It went on and on, reflecting both the rich religious diversity of Sri Lanka and the extraordinary depths to which Miriam had studied and learned.

Miriam also combined her interest and knowledge of things Indian with a profound understanding of Western culture, including classical music and literature. She forced all her children to pursue Western music. As a result, both sons, Rohan and Druvi are professional musicians in the UK. Rohan, in particular, was considered a prodigy as a cellist, and Miriam accompanied him throughout Europe to study and play with the masters, including Pablo Casals. A single mother, as we Americans would say now, Miriam was both a demanding tyrant and a challenging intellect with her children. She insisted on excellence and would accept nothing less.

She also, unusually for a woman of her social background, personally managed inherited coconut estates, part of the huge legacy of the Bandaranaike-Obeyesekere family in and around Horagolla. A determined, sometimes dangerous, driver of an antiquated Volkswagen beetle in the late 60s, for which no spare parts were legally available during those years of draconian import restrictions, Miriam drove at top speeds between Ward Place and the estates. She reviewed accounts with a hawk eye and terrified estate workers what she thought, often rightly apparently, of theft beyond the norm.

I departed Ceylon in August l970, just prior to the first JVP insurgency, but kept up a lifelong correspondence with Miriam de Saram. Whether I was in Washington, or Calcutta, or Kathmandu, or Bahrain, the arrival of occasional aerograms with her spidery, densely knit handwriting brought a wave of excitement and anticipation - and never disappointment.

I made a few drop-by visits to Sri Lanka during the next 25 years and always had at least a brief call on Miriam. She was one of those amazing people with whom one could conflate years and catchup immediately. And she almost always had a new intellectual enthusiasm she was pursuing with characteristic relentlessness and childlike wonder.

When I returned to Colombo as U.S. Ambassador in January 1996, Miriam was one of my first calls. Sadly, by then, she was resident in the Joseph Fraser Nursing Home, frail, brittle-seeming, and painfully thin. But, on nights out - whether at Skanda and his wife Sharadha's, or with niece Sunethra Bandaranaike, or at my residence on Horton Place, she never failed to demonstrate her dazzling intellectual skills and her humour. She could tell stories on herself - and mercilessly on the rest of us - and laugh at a high and joyous pitch. She was at that stage in life when she liked to reminisce over her life and adventures - and moments shared with special people. Sharadha and I organized a viewing of her famous film one night and, on another, her grandchildren, Tesalia and Ishviyan, gave a beautiful classical recital. Miriam was delighted and overwhelmed.

Living now in Manhattan where I am the US. Ambassador to the United Nations, I was awakened in the early morning hours of March 13 with a call from Sharadha saying that Miriam had passed away. A fax arrived hours later with details of the simple funeral ceremony. A week later a long e-mail from Skanda arrived, describing Miriam's last days.

Among many other accomplishments, Miriam de Saram was a prolific writer of poetry. Her early poems, organized and published privately by Skanda in the early '9Os, provided, focused and distilled images of Miriam's religious and philosophical searches. My favourite:

The Wanderer
I am a wanderer
In strange entanglements of opposites
Caught together
In a circus of confusion
Yet -
They appear to adjust themselves
To this environment for their existence
Where do we seek an answer?
I think it is - to look within
A constant Remembrance
In silence - calm
To look within

The writer is a former US ambassador to Colombo.

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