by Radhika Coomaraswamy
Padmini Coomaraswamy (Pathma Sinnamma), known to many as the wife of former Sri Lankan Cricket Captain Sathy Coomaraswamy gently passed away a few weeks ago. She was the only elder Coomaraswamy left in a country that has lived with so much hatred and bitterness. I sometimes want to shake a fist at destiny for depriving those who lived through the worst of times the right to enjoy the fruits of the future.
For the Coomaraswamy, Pathmanathan and Suntheraligam clan who once dominated the streets of Nallur, Jaffna and who now live in all parts of the world, she was the only remaining connection to Nallur; the Nallur that blossomed with Subash ice cream, every colour of glass bangles and temple celebrations that were an occasion for the family to get together to revive our bonds of love and honour.
In August 1983 I went to Jaffna with Pathma Sinnamma and my cousin. I had a strong mother, grandmother and powerful aunts and they overwhelmed Pathma Sinnamma who was always, quiet, peaceful and comfortable in herself like the Goddess Parvati. But that August, because of the July riots, most of the family did not come to Nallur so I had the joy of having Pathma Sinnamma all to myself. Behind the mask of Parvati, there was this extremely knowledgeable lady who was full of fun. Anjalendran, my cousin, and I reminisced recently about the times she would remove the Parvati mask to giggle and laugh at one of my cousin’s outrageous stories verging on slander and to wink and ask for second helpings of dessert that the doctor had strictly forbidden.
In the 1980s Pathma Sinnamma gave me a book of “Home Remedies”. In it were all the organic ways to clean and beautify the home, deal with the common cold and other medical ailments and how to take care of the garden. It has become a Bible for me and is kept near my bed as a major reference book. If there were a finishing school for wives and daughters she would have been its Principal.
As a feminist, for more than two decades we have cast a shadow on the term “housewife” because we were concerned about women’s economic independence. The “housewife” was the one who did not go to university, join the rat race and become a power player in society. But with the death of my own mother and now Pathma Sinnamma, I realize how we may have lost the nuances of what was taking place around us. Both Pathma Sinnamma and my mother and the women of their generation and the generation before them took being a housewife seriously – a full time profession and not a sideshow to powerful careers. In my mother’s case I found books of handwritten recipes (which I am sure she did not fully share), detailed checklists and step by step procedures of how rituals should be conducted on special days like Thai Pongal, and home remedies from how to make wood shine, warding off mosquitos and to curing a bad cough, There were hand written detailed accounts and a ball of silver holding all the keys to the “Pettahams” that were full of durable goods.
The death of Pathma Sinnamma is then a passing of an era in my family. The days of extended families, knowing that if your mother was not around an Aunt will pick you up from falling no longer exists for Sri Lankan Tamils after July 1983. Temple Road in Jaffna housed all the families of our clan and is now completely transformed. The vast majority of houses have been sold or rented to international organizations (safest place since it is right next to the Nallur Skanda Temple who commanded the loyalty of all sides to our conflict) or to more affluent members of Jaffna society.
Pathma Sinnamma herself, came from a very elite Jaffna Tamil family living in Colombo. She would have been the model of the Uduvil Girls school tradition. Dr. Malathy de Alwis in her PHD thesis describes how missionary schools took young Tamil women and make them into “ladies ” with all the hallmarks of breeding, cookery, sewing and feeding others with an eye on the perfectly laid table, sparkling china and glassware, and crisp linen. After my Uncle Sathi died my Aunt became more reclusive but remained the “go to” person on home remedies and perfect presentation.
My Aunt seemed always at peace with herself and perhaps she really was. My Uncle Sathy captained Sri Lanka in cricket and of course my whole family is completely wrapped up in this sport. My Aunt, like my mother, would never miss a match on the field or television. I remember being admonished by my mother in front of my Aunt for my “feminist critique” of cricket.
She reminded me that my Uncle captained Sri Lanka, my brother captained Harrow, my cousin Gajan was a very stylish opening bat and my father and cousin Dai Pathmanathan were fiery fast bowlers who opened bowling for Royal College. It is the only time I have seen disapproval in my Aunt’s face agreeing with my mother.
My Aunt went to every cricket match she could with a basket of goodies in large quantities to share with others around in “the pavilion”. She watched the cricket match from the beginning to the end. She only stopped when her health began to fail.
I also have stopped my “feminist critique” of cricket when I saw that in the internally displaced camps of Sri Lanka and refugee camps around the world, the only way to stop young boys’ hearts from breaking was to allow them to play either cricket or football depending on the country. UNHCR now makes it compulsory that a playing field for children be made part of any refugee camp design.
Like all my family, we loved our Pathma Sinnamma. She was one person who was above the fray, never a part of any disagreement. On behalf of my brother Indrajit and the countless cousins living in all parts of the globe, I can only say thank you for years full of memories and I promise to treat the game of cricket that you loved so much with more respect and may even try and attend a few matches as part of my tribute to you!