Colombo Telegraph

Culture & Gender: A Tale Of Two Women 

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

This essay can be understood at two levels. One is thematic and the other, personal. The essay is a note on the theme of Culture and Gender. It is also a tapestry of stories of the working out of the dialectic of these factors.

The essay seeks to illustrate the points that complex and conflicted though the relationships between men and women may be, when the relationships operate on the terrain of shared cultural norms and codes, the effects and outcomes of these contradictions can be contained. This is far more fraught when the relationship is not sustained by such commonality. In a developing society with culture wars, one may find oneself stranded behind the lines in the ‘other’ camp and in a different historical time zone of non-contemporaneity, but the effects and consequences of such dislocation/relocation are very different depending upon gender. A woman gets the worst of it, pays the higher price, while a man can weather the change. Even in terms of the transmission of effects, female children will be more affected than males. At the heart of all these matters is the principle of equality of status–the key variable. Finally, an irony is that a woman will find as much if not more hostility from those of her own gender in the cultural camp of the other.


At another level this essay is about the stories of two exceptional women, some of which intersect. This year marks significant anniversaries of two women I knew, one all my life the other all too briefly. They are both dead. One of these women was my mother, whose 90th birth anniversary falls this week; the other was my mother-in-law whose 10th death anniversary fell earlier this year, the year I shall turn 60. They were very different in temperament but shared several things: they belonged to the same generation; they were both modern Ceylonese with English as their first language; they were both employed albeit at different levels in the pedagogical profession and earned the undying affection and awe of their female students.

They were both independent but to different degrees. One died tragically of an excess of independence and strength; the other even more tragically of a deficiency of these in some (strictly domestic) respects. They were married to men who were at the university at roughly the same time but couldn’t have been a greater contrast in every remotely conceivable way. In the kind of thing that is common in the island’s middle/upper middle class English speaking urban society, my mother-in-law and her sister were schoolmates of my father’s stepsisters, while her closest cousin and my mother’s kid brother were buddies as brilliant students of physiotherapy.

Discovering the layered personalities and stories of these women was like uncovering a palimpsest. Reconstructing my mother partly by resurrecting the memories of others, I couldn’t help but wonder how many urban, independent-minded, fun-loving, daringly adventurous, short haired, car driving, swimming, tennis playing, rowing, dancing, literate (from Camus to Chandler- I have her books), employed (“an iconic teacher”), attractive young Ceylonese women with Pieter Keuneman’s poster on the wall and a silver rosary in the handbag, turned into the authoritarian-perfectionist and practitioner of tough love (maternal and wifely) that I knew up close and personal.


Was it only those ones who had married brilliantly gifted, wayward, rakishly good-looking, chain-smoking young literary critics turned gamblers, outrageously iconoclastic columnists and hard-drinking reporters who had internalized Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Frankie Boy Sinatra as their role models? Or was the metamorphosis of such attractive, free-spirited modern women –I would wisecrack much later that I had a “Tiger Mom” way before Prabhakaran founded the Tigers– absolutely contingent on having quit a successful career to raise as almost a single parent (in her eyes), an only child who was far more her husband’s buddy than her little boy, and whose stellar academic performance combined with serial “disobedience” was owed equally to her “strict discipline”, a semi-absent though indulgent liberal father, and the intensely engaged rebels Jesus and Che as boyhood heroes?

My parents fell in love and were married in Ceylon’s belated equivalent of the Fitzgeraldian Jazz Era, postcolonial, pre-Sinhala Only; the years of a liberal, progressive, modernist, cosmopolitan “high Ceylonism”. Lakshmi’s gifts to Mervyn, such as Edmund Wilson’s ‘To the Finland Station’ (1940) and Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon (1950), marked and symbolized the consciousness of that modernist emergent elite, young, progressive and emancipated from as well as impervious to any trace of provincialism. Their first and only child, I was born at the end of the year that some consider a watershed between two eras but was much more the transitional interface between cosmopolitan liberal modernity and a robustly rising populist nationalism, the bloc of which enabled the overthrow of the stuffily semi-colonial ancien regime represented by the UNP.

I knew early in the day—due to domestic argumentation—of what my mother insisted on terming my father’s “ womanizing”, which still seems to me slightly lurid sensationalizing but not entirely inaccurate a condemnatory description of a strikingly good-looking man’s inability to resist triple temptation of women, cards and booze while escaping from the ghost of his own father’s stoic, supercilious conservatism and the demon of high pressure journalism with its vicissitudes of tightrope walking “always in the public eye, always with a spotlight on you” (as Mervyn put it).

Lakshmi was the one he could trust, rely on to be there, and I think every time she gave him hell over his transgressions, present and past (I once invoked a statute of limitations, expostulating “Amma, but wasn’t that just after the Korean War?”) he was even more confirmed in her tenacious love for him. That tenacity was affirmation of the love of a “one man woman” (though Mervyn was capable of manifest jealousy much to her amusement, even when she was old) as set against a love he could not count on as much and therefore could not trust absolutely.

Lakshmi died a year and half after Mervyn. She died from an excess of strength and independence as manifested in a steely stubbornness. That quality had made her neglect her medical care after their family doctor and friend and fellow clubman, Dr. DJ Attygalle had died. Lakshmi never fully cooperated with another doctor with regard to her diabetes. She had a stroke in 1997, seemingly recovered from it but had mini-infarctions going on all over. Mervyn had turned, against all expectations, into a devoted (and harassed) caregiver. For decades he had confidentially expected to die any time after age 60, and did so as he was about to exit his sixth decade. Lakshmi found that her veto-wielding unilateralism had no taker in a son who had no guilt buttons to be pushed. So she turned her enormous will power inwards and decided to die, which she did.

I have yet to hear anyone, be it diplomat or contemporary, student or friend, nephew or niece, speak critically of Lakshmi or fail to be indelibly impressed by her stylishness, generosity, laughter, and fusion of concern and frank, unconventional advice to the young, especially women. Why then was her relationship with her son, her only child, so problematic, so fraught? Perhaps she was decidedly unwilling to play Mary while her son was showing symptoms of a Marxist variant of a messiah-complex and martyr syndrome and her husband was “just another Joseph looking for a manger” (Leonard Cohen). Or perhaps her experience with Mervyn (and her mother’s with her brothers) had converted her doctrine of motherhood into one of permanent pre-emptive counter-insurgency. Or perhaps I was a scapegoat, an innocent (though not uninvolved) civilian.

The final, most accurately definitive word on Lakshmi, belongs unsurprisingly to Mervyn. When, in my early teens, having put a stop to corporal punishment I had hurled some criticism her way, she had complained to him. Mervyn thought he’d have a word, not least because he needed the peace of mind to finish his column, but also because he believed what he was about to say. He was always smart enough to draw from my own discourse: he’d once made me swallow some ghastly medicine as a kid by simply sitting on my bed, twirling my toy Colt .45 revolver from its trigger guard and handing it to me saying “come on, Sheriff!” Since I had entered my teens he drew from the movie Bullitt with Steve McQueen which I had just seen, sneaking in to the Liberty cinema for the late show with his complicity, wearing long trousers. Invoking the iconic red tinted poster of McQueen in black turtleneck and shoulder holster, with the tagline that read “there are bad cops, and there are good cops, and then there’s Bullitt”, Mervyn pronounced: “there are bad ammas and there are good ammas—and then there’s Amma!” That’s not just the way he wanted me to see her, but the way he thought about her too. As a woman, a wife and a mother, Lakshmi transcended conventional categories and stereotypes. She was “beyond good and evil” (as Nietzsche put it); one of a kind.

Lakshmi and Mervyn lived out their drama within shared literary and cultural coordinates and norms, and a common social-historical time zone, of an axiomatic modernity and universality. Mervyn was never domineering nor loud; never even tried. There was never a question in my mind or anyone’s that Lakshmi and Mervyn were equals. Chandra de Silva nee Samarasinghe who emerged from a similar setting, never held on to those coordinates as criteria. Lakshmi and Mervyn had individually emancipated themselves early from extended family commitments. They lived as a (small) nuclear family with an active social life in the city’s bright lights and much globetrotting. While Lakshmi and Mervyn started a family, Chandra found she had joined, been absorbed into, a clan.

With two foreign degrees from top universities, Chandra could have had it all. Instead she strove to achieve success in her professional life while explicitly assigned a structurally subaltern role within her marriage (despite her superior education), trapped within a parochial, parasitic (even posthumously) extended family for whom “modern” was an epithet, struggling on behalf of her profession with a passion and commitment to the end of her days, her chosen compromise seeing her diminish in her personal while growing in her professional life against all odds. Lakshmi was indubitably loved, cared for, regarded with respect –and aging, treated with concern and close attention–by her husband. Without him, she tragically willed her own death, surrounded by Catholic nuns, and rebelling against her situation. Chandra tragically let herself be limply led to her death, even as her most cherished dreams for her profession came true.

I met Chandra in the last months of her life and she effortlessly made a lasting impression, which one would think would not be easy for a 78 year old, ailing (albeit academically active), seemingly subdued woman. But no one who ever encountered her ever forgot her and I have heard praise of her from those whom my wife Sanja and I met in Geneva, Paris, Singapore and Colombo. “Refined” “classy” “very nice”, “very educated and intelligent” and “lady” were the repeated recollections of professors and high officials alike.

Once you got past the disguise of domestic downplaying, passivity and compliance, and the unaccustomed usage of the vernacular, you encountered the daughter and niece of five Trinitians, the graduate of Delhi and Boston, the trained singer, pianist, guitarist, dancer and fan of jazz, swing and Nat King Cole, the swift and precise mind, the witty girlish charmer with a perfect command and delivery of the English language, the passionately dedicated pedagogue, her ready, playful smile successfully camouflaging her effort to survive in a quagmire of conspicuously middlebrow provincialism, sociocultural and intellectual resentment and insensitivity, in which patriarchal parenting targeting (from infancy to undergraduate years) the daughter most like her was kinetic, savagely tactile and educationally proscriptive—the brainy daughter was prohibited from entering Colombo’s Faculty of Law for which she had been selected having obtained the best results in Arts at the island’s pre-eminent Buddhist girl’s school (“law is not for girls”). Such backward, prejudiced, repressive patriarchy went unchecked by abject maternal cowardice and disgraceful evasion fused with culturally demanded female deference and non-interference.

Although voluntarily marooned amidst a hurtful, domineering, demanding, backward, crafty clan whose crest was an enormous chip on the shoulder, Chandra’s capacity to respond to humanity with love, generosity, compassion and pity miraculously hadn’t diminished. “One day, I’ll tell you the tricks and tactics that were used to beat the competition” she announced to me in her drawing room with a lively laugh, weeks before she died, alluding to how she came to accede to her partner from among her likelier suitors. She was never given the chance.

Chandra reached the top of her profession, uplifting its standards along the way. Symbolic of the family she came from is her first cousin Bertie Samarasinghe, the witty, gentlemanly doyen of Sri Lankan physiotherapists and maestro in his field, who returned to Sri Lanka after a practice of many decades in the UK and recently retired in his early 90s. But she herself was foredoomed by affiliation, dying after lingering for three weeks, of sepsis and multiple organ failure (following a botched surgery by an ill-chosen surgeon), in a wretched recovery unit, parked there like a lamb led to the slaughter, by the criminal folly of those who were hardcore personifications of Socrates’ definition that the most dangerous thing in the world was “unacknowledged ignorance”.

How can you succeed and survive as a westernized, urban, well-educated, gifted, sensitive, exceptional Asian woman, when your hero is Sydney Poitier and you live in a social environment that hadn’t heard of him, and in which the staple fare degenerates into mindless Sinhala and Hindi teleplays? Luckily (for me too) the next generation can sometimes exit the malignant matrix. Chandra had a girl child who was very much like her and her own refined, dancing, piano and piano-accordion playing mother, Rosalyn Dias Sumanasekara. I married the self-exiled daughter of Chandra and granddaughter of Rosalyn. The indelible impression Chandra left on me was best captured in a line by Art Garfunkel when he sang “and she shone like a gem in a five-and-dime store” (‘Mary Was an Only Child’).

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