28 September, 2020

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Anne Abayasekara: An Abundant Life

By Ranjan Abayasekara

Anne Abayasekara – 90th Birthday reflection

She was due to reach four score years and ten on 3rd April 2015. We had planned to rejoice with her in a manner similar to our father’s 90th birthday celebrated in December 2004. It was not to be. She contracted flu at the end of 2014, followed by hospitalisation on January 2nd and demise on January 4th. Amma left us peacefully and quickly, a manner she’d always desired. At the beginning of a new year, before many were aware of her illness, the message spread that Anne Abayasekara had completed her time on earth. The funeral service on January 7th at Kollupitiya Methodist Church was followed by her cremation at Kanatte.

The first tribute to her in a newspaper appeared that same morning. Other appreciations soon followed. They were from a cross-section of people, in SriLanka and overseas – old friends and recent friends. Cards, messages and emails coming in each day, made it clear that her life had impacted numerous people in a deep & lasting manner.

These heartfelt expressions prompt us to pause, amidst our sense of loss, to reflect upon her life

What was it that connected her so deeply and indelibly to all these people?

Is there a limit to a single heart’s capacity to care?

When you call someone Friend, is it for all of your days?

Are words ‘Mother’ and ‘Family’ inwardly focussed, or do they encompass deeper meanings?

Parting – is it final when someone is gone?    

Upon reading the varied messages one realises her multi-faceted nature.

Anne Abayasekara

Anne Abayasekara

Regular readers of newspaper columns and letters viewed her as a forthright writer articulating the thoughts of many who stood for a united country, and were appalled by the path the country was being taken by those in power and the propagation of various forms of extremism.

To others she was a homemaker who had shared interesting experiences in raising a large family.

She was also a leader in the Methodist Church, who lived out her faith through action.
Many appreciated her contribution to the community as a family counsellor, while to others she was simply a dear friend.

To the family circle she was the one who by constant contact kept the whole circle united by love. Through her actions, spoken and written words she enriched all our lives.

In looking at her personality, we realise that she applied her gifts of head and heart, at an individual level and also the wider level of community and nation. She knew that ‘Peace on earth’ is only possible if there is peace within oneself and in relationships one had with others.

Factors that contributed to achieving inner peace, and its fruits, are her upbringing, schooling, faith, reading habit and marriage.

Coming from a background where her parents had little ability to bestow material gifts, and being boarded at a tender age in a Colombo school far away from home, gave her well-grounded values.

As a devoted daughter she had her parents live in her home until the end of their days. She lacked a sister, but made up for this by close bonds with cousins, which lasted throughout their lives. The close tie with her brother played a key role in her life. His facing a job interview at Lake House, led to her being called there too at age 17. Thus began a career of over 70 years spent immersed in the joy of writing. She was always grateful to Lake House and its founder Mr D R Wijewardene.

Schooling at C.M.S. Ladies’ College in Colombo led to early blossoming of her personality. The multi-ethnic friendships cemented for life in school, coloured her vision for a harmonious & united country. Foreigners were never ‘aliens’ and she forged many enduring friendships with overseas folks. Amma also created new friendships throughout her life, discovering kindred spirits in a wide range of people, while carefully nurturing old friendships.

83 JulyShe never forgot the debt owed to Miss Gwen Opie from New Zealand – her school principal- for teaching Christian values by word and deed. Her deep faith, blended with these values, social conscience and wide reading set her for life on the side of the less fortunate, willing to take risks when necessary.

Once in the 1960s arriving too early outside the then Colombo Oval to pick up a son after the Royal-Thomian cricket match, she had slum kids clamouring around her car. She asked them all to pile in, and drove a few times around Wanathamulla Road, to give them probably their first car ride. While driving a back door opened and one kid fell out of the car! Fortunately there was no injury. She sheepishly told Thatha and us of the incident. We knew that ‘the least of these’ had found a place in her compassionate heart.

In her school days, together with close friends she had ‘rebelled’ at one time, refusing to sing the then National anthem ‘God Save the King’, and demanding that India be freed from the colonial yoke!

Never one to sway with political winds she stayed steadfast to her conscience. In 1983 while there was a profound silence in the media, she wrote forthright articles, which were published in The Sun. In the dark days of Black July, Amma & Thatha protected neighbours from the rampage outside, and were able to give despairing relatives who telephoned from overseas the ability to speak to loved ones kept safe under their roof.

In February 1994, she joined a Methodist Church group to travel to Jaffna taking train to Vavuniya, and on tractor-trailer, bicycle pillion and bus rest of the way. Her words from the heart, to people she met there had an effect on them; their silent suffering had an effect on her. She remembered the look in their eyes whenever she spoke or wrote on the topic. In more recent years, when ‘the vans’ were doing their best to stifle opinion, she stood her ground. She never flinched from speaking up against injustice, and supported others who also spoke up for National reconciliation & good governance.

Even while a busy mother she was a Red Cross blood donor. When all of us were students, the household comprised between 12 to14 people, at times cousins also found lodging at home. If she thought an occasion warranted it, she was first to say sorry – even leaving a note of apology on a bed. She encouraged all of us to make our own choices in life, assured we all knew our roots. As the family grew through marriage, Amma formed strong bonds with in-laws and progeny. Children of her friends, friends of her children found her to be a confidant and unique friend. Active on email until days before her death, she was in touch globally. Her memory seemed phenomenal –it stemmed from genuine interest in each one.

Music and song were a core part of her life. She used the piano to create a certain atmosphere within the home. Tunes from ‘Everybody’s Favourites’ music book would waft through the house like a blessing, oft times accompanied by her singing. Her creative writing was not limited to prose. It was best seen in the annual song she composed for Thatha’s birthday, set to a popular tune and practised by us in secret. His birthday celebrated around Christmas, complete with Variety Family Concert and Nativity Play, was a focal event among friends and relatives. Many still recall magical memories of those times. She later composed songs to be sung at some family weddings.

Her way of coping with aging and medical issues was an example. She didn’t complain of undergoing surgical procedures and produced articles that were informative and had a humorous touch.

The flame of love for her motherland burned stronger after she walked around our ruined cities for the first time, hand in hand with Thatha in the early years of marriage. The fire had been lit when as a 23 year old journalist she attended the Independence Day inauguration on 4th February 1948. Those of her generation had visions of a united and happy nation dashed, and hopes for unity replaced by language & religious hatred. Democratic institutions were distorted; self-glorification, violence & corruption had become the norm. She joined groups such as the Friday Forum and kept on writing, arguing for alternatives…for better days ahead.

What caused Amma’s life to be so Abundant? It is a combination of the aspects mentioned earlier. The principal contributing factor is that she had married the one person in the world who was just right for her.

Amma & Thatha complemented each other perfectly although appearing to be opposites – he cerebral and given to speak only after due consideration; she lively, with opinions to air and more than ten years younger! Each contributed to the other’s success in ‘the art of living.’ Their perfect partnership enabled her talents and character to bloom. Thatha’s death in August 2005 was the hardest blow she ever received, and his absence was, for her, an ever aching void. They both had long lives, not least because of exceptional care given by their physician. For the extra years he added to their time on earth, they were, and we are always grateful.

Amma had e-mail friends overseas whom she never met. One has written to us, asking that selected writings be published as a book, for future generations to read and to benefit the land she loved so dearly.

Looking back we now realise that although she was our mother, she was ‘Mother’ personified to many others by caring relationships. We were her family, but she showed how one also creates ‘Family’ by concerned and enduring kinships.

She has now passed beyond the horizon of our earthly vision, but left us a legacy. Not jewellery or estates, but words of love and an example of a life lived in all its fullness. She left hand written notebooks filled with words, quotes and extracts she valued. In 2011, she thought it apt to leave a message to all the family in case of sudden departure. Her words of farewell, “When I am gone”, give us comfort and their spirit will endure.

We were fortunate to be raised on the bedrock of the love our parents had for each other and for each one of us. These will continue to be our inspiration, and beacon, for generations to come.

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Latest comments

  • 31
    9

    Its time to call a spade a spade. Anne might have been a good writer in English and a leader of the Methodist community. She was also a polite individual. But she is on record for having made statements that expressed her disrespect for Hinduism. An individual is entitled to his or her views. But in a fractured society such as Sri Lanka, this mind set, also shared by others in her church, epitomized a Christian intolerance of other religions. Anne was careful enough not to attack Buddhism. She in fact praised it which revealed the politically astute individual that she was. She cautiously remained silent on Islam to my knowledge. It is individuals such as she who inadvertently fueled the fires of religious discord in South Asia by their highly selective denunciations of religion, a characteristic of the so-called liberal English speaking elite of Colombo.

    • 8
      24

      I am horrified to read this comment. My family and I have been close friends of Mrs Abayasekara, and have never heard her say or write anything derogatory of Hinduism or any other religion. I know for a fact that she respected all the faiths in our land, and I am certain that there is no basis for this statement.

      I would venture to say that such an unsubstantiated statement made in response to a son’s tribute on the birth anniversary of his dear mother, much loved by many, not just Christians, but from all faith backgrounds, seems to say more about the commentator, than about this gracious lady, who, I am proud to have known and called my friend.

      • 8
        27

        I have to disagree strongly with Satish and agree with Rajasingam. I have seen extremely liberal views from Anne (as I recall in the Sunday Times) which would not be supported by many Methodists. Her written views do not accord with Satish’s claims about her views.

        But even if she expressed negative things about Hinduism as Satish cliams, what is wrong with that? Is Satish himself not playing a little game against Islam when he says “She cautiously remained silent on Islam to my knowledge.”

        Why would one want to be tolerant of a religion that is the basis of caste? Of a woman having to reserve herself for one man even after widowhood but a man being free to engage with any woman even when married like Rama and his many women and whose marriage to Sita is upheld as ideal?

        I think we are all called to be intolerant of these ideas even when they are cloaked in religion. Imagine if Americans had been silent on the ban on inter-racial marriage because it was defended using the Bible? Why should Hinduism be exempt? If we are tolerant of these retrograde ideas just because they are cloaked in religion, then we are intolerant of the majority of Tamils and Muslims who are said to be low caste and would be promoting the oppression of women.

        We all want to say goody-goody stuff about religions and forget that in trying to be tolerant we are promoting intolerance of the so called low castes and women.

        • 24
          2

          Satish is allowed to say what his opinion is on the deceased. If the author did not want comments then he should not have published on CT.
          Religion is the source of many conflicts, if not all conflicts in the world.

          • 1
            14

            Robert, A little off the point aren’t you?

            No one said Satish should not comment. Now you are saying he can comment on what is in Colombo Telegraph but Mohammed cannot comment on Satish’s comment even though satish has written in Colombo Telegraph! Where is the logic in this?

        • 21
          0

          The less said about Islam and its treatment of women and the non Muslim the better. Its a very violent religion. Its founder had 12 wives, innumerable concubines and thousands of slaves. He killed the Jews of Medina. What is the commentator Mohammed trying to argue? I agree with Robert R

          • 3
            16

            @ Piyaseeli

            Without commenting on your comment may I suggest that you read “Islamic Jurisprudence”!that brilliantly researched and superbly written book by Prof. Weeramantry, formerly a judge of the ICJ.Even a Muslim could discover the real tolerant Islam that the Prophet stood for.

            Islam like Buddhism ,Christianity and Hinduism have been captured by extremists.Just because Bin Ladin used Islam, the BBS uses Buddhism, Crusaders used Christianity,and the Hindutva uses Hinduism for political ends through violent means does not make any of these great faiths bad at all.

            • 18
              1

              @ Somasunderam

              May I suggest that you first counter my points! There are many stanzas in the Koran to illustrate “the real tolerant Islam that the Prophet stood for” as you put it. Here are two.

              “The unbelievers among the people of the book (i.e. Jews and Christians) and the pagans shall burn for ever in the fire of hell. They are the vilest of creatures” (chapter 98, verse 51).

              “Prophet! make war on the unbelievers and the hyporcrites and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate (chapter 66, verse 9)”. I can provide many more examples.

              Now, what does all this have to do with Anne Abayasekara. It only tells us that she, like you and the commentator Mohammed above were not intellectually honest.

  • 7
    17

    A wonderful remembrance piece from Mr Abayasekera of his famous and much loved mother. It brought back many memories of her writings and her gentle philosophy of life which she shared with all.

    I am amazed that no comments or appreciations have been recorded for this article by the voracious readers and commentators on CT.

    I believe they are devouring more juicy raw meat and shredding people up on political articles and denigrating their pet “enemies” in the security of pseudonyms or remote locations.

    A pity about the depths human values have fallen to. However, let us hope there will be more people like Anne Abayasekera who will help make Sri Lanka a better place.

  • 7
    21

    A great Lady.Very rare in our present society.May her soul rest in Peace!

    • 4
      15

      Five negatives versus two positives for this simple comment. Are thee responses organized in any way to denigrate her memory?

  • 20
    2

    It is unfortunate that many Christians do not choose to try to understand other religious concepts and philosophies. I am a christian. If Christians do study these they will realise that the ‘goals’ are the same, though the
    ‘paths’ may be different.

  • 7
    18

    A young lady who never grew old. Unforgettable.

  • 7
    17

    Looked forward to read her columns and articles. May she Rest in Peace!

  • 5
    17

    From an article in the Sunday Leader of Dec. 7th, 1997 tilted “The Aunt for all seasons” :

    In her capacity as a counsellor and advice columnist, Anne gets a clear insight as to the varied problems people undergo. She is saddened by the racial and religious hatreds, mistrust and intolerance. “There is something good to be taken from every religion,”she says. “By acknowledging this and teaching at least the younger generations to learn to respect each other’s beliefs, to accept each other as human beings, we could make the world a better place,” she says.
    “On his 80th b’day my husband completed a course on Buddhist studies. He told me then, by being closed up, how much people were missing valuable lessons and the great teachings from other religions.

    For her part, Anne is anything but closed up. She is amenable to other peoples view points and is never judgmental.

    -by Raine Wickrematunge-

    • 4
      11

      At Peradeniya, the vast majority hated anyone who, like the Abeyasekara’s, spoke English (or was good at it!) In fact, many of the Abeyasekaras married Tamils and were called the Kaduwa Abeyasekarams. This class of people who called us Kaduwas hated those of us who were good in our English. Is this why there are so many negative responses even too mild praises of the late Anne.

      These anti-kaduwas have now become Kaduwas’ themselves in the West .They speak only English at home and feed only beef burgers and hard liquor and there run the most kaduwa people i know.

      The only thing they retain of their old persona is their hared of kaduwa’s like the Abeyakaramas – as seen bu all these thumb s down signs

  • 19
    3

    Essie made a very good point that Christians should try to understand other religious concepts and philosophies. Hats off to her and to other broad minded Christians such as Yohan Devananda, Christie Weeramantry and Thomas Merton.

    Raine Wickramatunge’s article is dated 1997. Sarla Williams served as a chaplain in Methodist college. Anne, Raine and Sarla belonged to the same Methodist network.

    On June 30, 2008, Anne wrote in the Island, ‘Yes, I have to confess that I have not been able to respond in the same way to what little I have seen of Hindu Temples and sculpture’. She goes on to explain how Hinduism left her cold, stupefied and bewildered. She did not bother to understand a religion that had produced a Tagore, a Gandhi, a Ramakrishna and an Ananda Coomaraswamy! She wrote elsewhere “When I went to Kataragama with a large group, I could not myself enter the Kovil along with the others. It seemed utterly alien to me…’ and continued with her veiled attack.

    Likewise, in numerous conversations with several in recent years, she expressed a more open disdain and prejudice.

    Satish appropriately flagged that aspect of her character.

    • 5
      16

      Punya, please be honest. Anne’s article is at http://www.island.lk/2008/06/30/features5.html

      The phrase “utterly alien” is not there in her piece. She simply says alien. The word stupefied you have quoted does not appear in her piece. These are just two of your dishonest distortions. Why do you doctor Anne’s words? You Punya have changed words to make her piece sound bad. She gives the reasons why she did not feel like entering a Hindu temple and for the young girl she was, that was all right. I have seen Hindu mothers blocking their young daughters’ faces in the presence of phallic statuettes. Why would we expect the then young Anne to feel comfortable looking at them. She was an honest writer and we cannot blame her for it.

      There columns are not the place for articles like her son’s and comments like her daughter’s because a lot of the dishonest stuff in the comments goes unchallenged. Most of us read and assume that these quotations are correct. It is something Colombo Telegraph must learn to deal with.

      Here is what Anne actually wrote:

      “Yet I have to confess that I have not been able to respond in the same way to what little I have seen of Hindu temples and sculpture. I hope my Hindu friends will pardon me when I say I had my attention drawn to phallic symbols standing amidst ruined devalas in Polonnaruwa, and to figures of the God Ganesh, and they left me cold. When I went to Kataragama with a large group, I couldn’t make myself enter the kovil along with the others. It seemed alien to me in a way that no Buddhist temple did, although all my Buddhist friends in the group eagerly entered in. My reluctance may have been due to some quirk in me.”

  • 13
    2

    Mohammed

    I have a cut out of the printed daily. The only word that differs between your version and mine is the word ‘utterly’. I stand by my point!

    I did not place in quotes the word ‘stupefied’. Look at the inverted commas which is what is quoted before you hastily pass judgement! Contrary to what you claim, Anne does not really provide reasons for why she was reluctant to enter a place dedicated to a Hindu God as you claim.

    What was so ‘alien’ about Kataragama? Was it more alien than a Christian church? Or a Muslim mosque?

    Your defense of Anne makes me really think that she was either ignorant of her surroundings to talk of ‘alien’ which a dictionary would translate as ‘foreign’, ‘strange’, ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘extra terrestrial’ or an outright bigot like you.

    Kataragama was and is central to southern Sinhalese Buddhism. The devale (its not a kovil!) is managed by Buddhists. Buddhism leaves room for the veneration of Hindu Gods. Ranil was recently on pilgrimage to a Hindu temple in Kerala. Anne was obviously ignorant of her Buddhist surroundings!

    How do you know she knew what the Linga meant when she visited those places?

    Are you really a Muslim or tying to masquerade as one to deflect criticism? I suspect that you are pretending to be a Muslim and using that shield to attack Hinduism. You would have otherwise defended Islam from Piyaseeli’s attacks, which you did not!

    No Hindu mother would ‘block their young daughters faces in the presence of phallic statuettes’. The Linga no longer has a ‘phallic connotation’ representing today an abstract concept of the form-formlessness of God. It represents a column of light despite its roots in what was originally a fertility rite just as the Christian eucharist had its origins in ritual cannibalism where you eat the flesh of a dead man to partake of his spirit or the morbid concept of the crucifixion with its origin in human sacrifice. The word Easter means estrus – i.e. menstruation or flow of blood – itself rooted in a fertility cult. But concepts get reinterpreted and redefined over the centuries. Likewise with the Linga!

    If one does not describe the eucharist as ritual cannibalism, lets not describe the Linga as a phallus – a typical Anne ploy!

    Lets be frank – Anne was uncomfortable visiting a place of Hindu veneration because of her narrow-minded Christian sensibilities that saw it as dark and evil. She dared not comment on Buddhism because any such piece would not have been published! She was evidently a mediocre intellect!

    I repeat my suspicion – that you are not a Muslim and Mohammed is not your real name. You would have otherwise defended your religion – unless you did so using the name ‘Somasunderam’!! Muslims and Tamils today are largely on the same wavelength facing a common concern of the resurgence of a Rajapakse fascism. They do not attack each other these days.

  • 10
    6

    Has anybody read Anne Abayasekara’s Hurrah for Large Families? I found it pedestrian and insipid. Anne is no Carl Muller or Michael Ondaatjie.

    • 4
      7

      No one ever claimed AA is an Ondaatji or a Muller. But she had to have been pretty good to have her columns routinely accepted in many places — which I cannot say for any of these miserable people throwing bricks at her and cooking up quotations supposedly from AA.

      Do I see green everywhere as pointed out by Marlene? The New Kaduwas against the Old Kaduwas who had a touch of class?

  • 6
    7

    It amazes me, how many persons known to me thought of Aunty Anne as her/his dear friend and have told me that she was in correspondence with them to her very end. That says to me that she had this higher human quality ” in favor with God and mankind” (Luke 2:52). Uncle Earl was all that a gentleman was supposed to be. Not many people displayed to us their sincerity of character when we were growing up. If not for people like Rev. Duleep Fernando and the Abeysekeras, Sri Lankans, very specially the Tamil people would have lost all hope even in God, during ’83.
    “May the memory of the gracious be for a blessing..”

  • 5
    7

    First off, Ranjan deserves a word of praise for this lovely piece he has written about his mother. It has brought out the great things she had done for people, particularly the marginalized in society through her numerous roles as counselor,mentor, adviser,writer,speaker and poet. She dared speak out her mind, and even stand up to the emperors of the day by exposing their intolerance, corruption and mean spiritedness.

    I had known Anne since back in the 80’s. In fact, my family and I had the good fortune to meet her at Christmas service at Kollupitiya Methodist Church with her son Ranil,(who was my contemporary at Peradeniya University), whenever we did our visit from overseas. We saw her last in December 2013.

    It is indeed disheartening to see those nasty comments, mostly balderdash,made by ignorant minds and more so, insensitive mortals. In a sense, I see these accusations as a reflection of the bankrupt and fragmented state of morality and intelligent thinking in recent times.

    Anne did not ever extol the virtues of Christianity as being superior to the other religions practiced in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, her teachings and writings actually cut through racial, ethnic and religious barriers. In fact, she was fearless and forthright in exposing gross injustices heaped upon minorities by those in power and others, for whom corruption, bigotry, selfishness were all acquired virtues. In my estimate, she stood out as a person who believed in DEEDS not WORDS. She stood for social justice.

    Her works did help stir the conscience of a nation, but was she heard by the silent majority? How many of our leaders, be they political, religious, or societal, have displayed the will and the courage to speak up against injustices and irregularities in the country’s body politic.

    This has been one of my pet peeves- that writings by people like Anne, Sucharita Gamlath, Tissa Jayatilake (and the list goes on….) have, to my knowledge not been translated into the two contentious languages that have caused the inhabitants of this resplendent isle so much misery in the past decades. What percent of the population reads the local English newspapers? To quote Bob Dylan, “the answer my friend, is blowing in the wind.”

    I notice a couple of comments accusing Anne of being Anti-Hindu. It is important that when sending in comments, a thorough examination of the facts should be made, and second, quotes should not be taken out of context, the time period etc.. This discussion does not warrant a debate about religion, but, if one must insist, I can boldly say that the danger to a religion is surely from WITHIN, not WITHOUT!

    A good discourse Ranjan. May your mother’s soul rest in peace.

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