By Laksiri Fernando –
It is not so conventional for a husband to write an eulogy or memorial for his wife. However, we have not been very conventional in life on many matters and occasions. We were born in the same area of Moratuwa, more precisely Moratuwella, in between the Panadura river and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the nature and water had some effect on our lives in a positive manner from the beginning. Only on rare occasions we had to be careful about the rising tide of the river or the angry behavior of the sea. The area was fairly clean, and the residents were less than a quarter of the present population. Her house was along Francisco Place and ours was just beside St Peter’s Church.
It was after an initial stay in Ragala, where her father ran a petrol station, that she came with some of her siblings to stay at their ancestral home and to go to school in Moratuwa. While she went to the Princess of Wales College, I attended the Prince of Wales College. Her elder sister and one of my elder sisters were friends. This gave us the initial opportunity to become family friends. We also went to the same church and Sunday school at St Peter’s Church.
She had an initial adventurist nature to influence others through several devices. When I met her as a teenager, one of her tricks was to read or pretend to read others’ horoscopes. Perhaps she had learnt something from a Guru. I was bypassed, until I learned palm reading. Obviously, palm reading was more effective than horoscope in conquering followers. That is how I managed to conquer her.
We had common endeavors in studying and preparing for examinations. That is how we came closer in early 1960s. We exchanged study notes, books, pens, pencils, and letters including love letters. Those days pens were not bolt point but fountain pens. We sometimes got reprimanded by our families for these exchanges, but not necessarily for our friendship. In our family, Winitha was considered a good person and perhaps I also had the same reputation in her family. Among our topics of discussion, leftist politics started to take prominence given my close association with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – even as a school student.
We entered the University of Peradeniya, one after the other, I opting to do a special degree in Economics, and Winitha selecting B.Ed.. At Peradeniya, apart from our studies we were closely involved in radical left politics. Our objective was to keep the left movement as independent as possible from the main (bourgeoise) parties – although it was difficult to achieve. Those days, in the student movement, there was a fair balance between studies and student activism. However, things were changing during the latter stages of our student days.
In 1970, Winitha became a graduate teacher, first teaching at Kandapola, while she boarded at Nuwara Eliya. By that time, we were married. Our marriage was sudden and unconventional. My appointment at Vidyodaya University in June 1969 was an easy excuse for a sudden marriage. Under university rules, when a lecturer goes on overseas leave, the spouse received travel grants if they were married before the appointment. That was an excuse. We didn’t see much point in having a conventional wedding or a big ceremony, although our families were all ready for that.
This year, 2022, we completed 53 years of married life without any upheavals. Our only son, Ravi, born in 1973, was always on our side. His birth also marked a change in our lives, from being a less responsible couple to a more accountable parents. Politics became more of a theoretical or academic matter without our direct involvement.
We went to Canada in mid 1970s to complete our postgraduate studies thanks to Prof A. J. Wilson’s help. Winitha completed a M.Ed. We became very close to Wilson family, Susili Wilson (S. J. V. Chelvanayakam’s daughter) as an inspirer. Through experience, we came to know the futility of Sinhala people suspecting or distancing themselves from Tamil people and vice versa, one of the causes of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
While more of her study courses centered around educational psychology, she selected “The Development of University Education in Sri Lanka, 1963 – 1971: Implications for Employment” as the research topic. She wrote “My main conclusion is that while it is to some extent clear that the expansion of university education during 1960s, with a greater emphasis on the humanities and social sciences, was largely responsible for aggravating the unemployment situation, there is, however, the more important consideration that a greater share of the blame for the situation has to be assigned to tardy economic growth.”
Although having a M.Ed. from the University of New Brunswick, she was not expecting any special treatment or promotion as she knew that all these are mostly done in Sri Lanka on different considerations. She accompanied me to Geneva in 1984 until we decided to migrate to Australia for the sake of our son in 1991. She was also committed to the objectives of the World University Service (WUS) as I was.
She had completed a teaching career of over 15 years by then. Under new regulations, those teachers who had completed 12 years of teaching could obtain retirement and pension. However, she could not. When we applied for a pension, she was served with ‘a vacation of post notice.’ When an appeal was made, a person in charge of the matter said that we should go to the Minister. Although the Minister was personally known to both of us, Winitha was not agreeable to go before a politician as a matter of principle.
In Australia, she first served at the Community Services Centre in Bondi Junction. Then she obtained a Casual Teacher position in the Western Sydney area. Thus, we moved from East to West in Sydney. When a teacher was on leave or absent, she had to go and teach. No influence was necessary for these appointments. Although it was casual, considering her postgraduate qualifications from Canada, she was given a higher salary scale.
Teaching and teacher education appeared to make a big influence in a person’s personal character. She was calm and sober, balanced minded and moderate, and without jumping on to quick conclusions on any matter. After my retirement, our lives became much closer during the last ten years or so. We again started to exchange things like shirts and shoes, like in our young age. She was delighted to wear my shirts.
For the last three years, we have been staying at the Bruce Sharpe Lodge in Rockdale, Sydney. Australia supplies excellent services to old-aged people particularly with health issues. Her passing away was completely unexpected. She was admitted to hospital due to a brain aneurysm. Although a successful surgery was done, acquiring Covid surprisingly in the ICU, prevented her further recovery. No health system appears to be faultless in any country today. Negligence or challenge of Covid was a major factor.
Winifred passed away peacefully without much suffering on 12 August. Our daughter-in-law Clare, our grandson Josh, our son Ravi, and I were by her side during her last moments. She passed away at 4:33am on 12 August surrounded by music from her childhood (Sunil Santha’s songs were playing) and by her loving family. That is what she always wanted. We feel that she is still with us in spirit although not physically.
May she Rest in Peace.
May she attain Nibbana.
(This tribute was written with inputs from our son, Ravi Fernando.)