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Re- Discovering My Mother

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It’s only a couple of weeks ago I discovered this photograph of my mother as a young lady in her early twenties, just back from the University of Delhi having completed her BSc (Honours) degree. My cousin Omali found a family portrait amongst her dad’s clothes after his death earlier this month. It was in some ways a discovery of hidden treasure. I had never seen my mum this way. A well-educated young lady still to discover her future, but already of great composure and confidence.

Turning into an adult as independence dawned in Ceylon, her journey to Delhi University with two other young ladies who remained friends for life, was to be able to take over the institutions as the British left while not only keeping to those standards but raising them. Throughout her life she strove to achieve this, getting her MSc from the University of Boston and being offered another scholarship to complete her PhD there in what would have been a rare achievement for an Asian woman in the early sixties, but being married by then, had to reluctantly refuse, due to family pressure to return to Ceylon.

Intelligent, courageous and determined, she was of that generation of men and women who felt a responsibility as the educated elite to contribute to the building of a newly independent Ceylon. The women of this time strove to achieve this while being hamstrung on the one hand by cultural factors which kept pulling them back and the prejudices of a male dominated bureaucracy which was as yet unused to and perhaps therefore threatened by educated women with ideas and passion. Her resolve to carry on striving regardless of these hurdles puts many in subsequent, more privileged generations to shame.

It was a moment of joy in an otherwise sad occasion of my uncle’s funeral, when I set eyes on this lovely young lady, serene and happy, who was to be my mother several years later. I wish I had known her then. Today, the 28th of January, it’s 11 years since she passed away. And yet, it’s only now that I feel I finally began to understand her.




I always knew this woman had existed, but the evidence came only when my wife Sanja went back home to Asgiriya, Kandy, to a house on a winding road dotted by the houses of her relatives. Sanja had told me many times about Asgiriya and had wanted to go there but I was far too trapped, at first in diplomacy and more permanently in the city’s politico-media vortex to take her there.

We finally made it to bid a long goodbye to her uncle Nissanka who had died, age 90, a few days after we had New Year’s lunch with him in Colombo. Someone showed us the newspaper with the article that Sanja had written on her uncle, placed on a table in the sitting room, where he lay in his coffin. We then spotted the portrait photograph of her family on the table—and there was Chandra, Sanja’s mother, whose quiet poise was somehow able to arrest the attention of anyone who looked at the photograph.

The Chandra Samarasinghe of that time would have stood out anywhere, in any company. Attractive, composed, intelligent, well dressed and with a sensitivity in her eyes, and known to be an accomplished singer, dancer and pianist, it seemed total natural to me that the internationally known Ceylonese novelist and polymath J. Vijayatunga (author of “Grass for my Feet”) who was teaching at Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan at the latter’s invitation, was a mentor of, and drawn to, the much younger Chandra during her Delhi days.

Outwardly she was almost unrecognizable when I got to know her, but her refinement, humor, intellect and personality had remained intact, though only outside her domestic confines or on the rare occasions that she interacted with her peers. The Chandra you see in the photograph had been submerged later in life under a social siege (beginning a few years after the photograph). Little was left of the damsel, almost overwhelmed by the distress.

She was very different though when we saw her at the university even in her last day, suffering from cancer albeit in an eminently eliminable area and stage—she was brisk, confident, and worked (setting exam papers for postgraduates) till she entered hospital and spent the last three weeks of her life. She always had a grace that all the attrition could not efface—and she could top me in a gently witty comeback in her impeccable English even while on her death bed.

I am fortunate to have had her, however briefly, as my mother-in-law, I always found her family easy to get on with and affectionate towards Sanja. I am sorry I never met her father, Peter Samarasinghe, who from his photograph and the stories I’ve heard (a tough Trinitian like my paternal grandfather, and a pugilistic, Anglicized anti-colonial), seems to have been quite a guy.

The story of the young lady in photograph was one of achievement and tragedy. The moral of that story confirmed my view that refinement and intelligence are not enough; that they have to guarded and fought for against the encroachments of those resentful of them; that one must not allow misplaced charity to govern ones most personal choices; that there is no culture without “civility” and that civility must be insisted upon. If not, even a gentle intelligent lady such as the young woman in the photograph can come to a hideous end. Environment, social ecology, is crucial, for the sensitive and gifted spirit: Sting’s song notwithstanding, not every rose can survive in the desert.

All said and done though, I am delighted when so many of her family and friends tell Sanja in my presence just how much she is like her mother Chandra. When I first told her that she didn’t believe it, but now the opinion and the evidence are overwhelming. With a wife like Sanja, a mother-in-law like Chandra, and the strong similarity between daughter and mother, I couldn’t be happier or prouder.


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