5 March, 2021

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Mourning Mala: Remembering Malathi De Alwis

By Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

Mala’s passing has shaken me; cut my finger which bled profusely yesterday, making breakfast, while thinking of her and remembering that she wrote a poem titled: “To a Tamil Friend” after the 1983 riots. 

We were ‘best friends” in school, at Ladies College (LC), for many years. Our (extended) families knew each other and our fathers had been in the same school. Mala was creative, always in the top 3 in class, quiet, sensitive and kind in school, more serious than me. She had a discerning eye and enjoyed nature. During lunch-break we used to swap food – usually sandwiches, cutlets or Chinese rolls, or had ‘bites’ from each other’s. Mala ‘hated’ egg sandwiches! She used to lecture me when an LC Prefect because I did not wear the required “underskirt” with the white uniform and signature red buckle. I thought wearing underskirts was uncool; was more rebellious. We did not know the word ‘feminism’ then.

Mala was rather sickly, used to have long flus and miss weeks of school, and I used to miss her. She sometimes had dark patches on her arms because of the antibiotics she said. We both lived in Bambalapitiya, a fifteen-minute walk away and would visit each other during school holidays and exchange books and snacks. We saw films together and went for Royal-Thomian ‘big matches’ as teens with our classmates, Anu and Faahima. We were a multicultural clique. Mala and I sometimes met during holidays in Kandy with our respective grandmothers, and went on trips out of Colombo with school friends.

Dr. Malathi de Alwis

Above all, we shared and loved reading and talking books; from Enid Blyton we graduated to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, and then to Agatha Christie and murder mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, and also ‘Mills and Boon’ romances. Later we read Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, Sartre, Camus, and the Existentialists, and discussed concepts such as ‘ alienation’.

After A Levels and leaving school, Mala and I had our first job together — as journalists at the Sunday Times. We used to take a bus to Fort and the lift to the top floor of Colombo’s iconic Bristol Building which felt like an adventure then. An aunt, Rita Sabastian, who was the Editor at the Sunday Times, had suggested we get some ‘experience” during our gap year between school and University. Our classmate, Anu used to work in the same building at her father, Nihal Fernando’s Studio Times. We often had lunch together.

That year Mala and I went as “cub reporters” to various Court hearings and did a four-day trip with some of Sri Lanka’s leading archeologists for the extended inauguration of the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Project, with Profs. Senaka Bandaraniyake and Roland Silva et al. We climbed Sirigiya and later the Kanthaka Chitiya on a bright, starlit, Poson Poya night from where we watched pilgrims winding their way up Mihintale mountain in a spiral of torch light. After we returned to Colombo we wrote articles on the Cultural Triangle projects at Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, for the Daily Mirror features section. 

When Mala gave me a copy of her poem: “To a ‘Tamil friend” after the riots in July 1983 and said that she’d written it for me (and I presume other Tamil friends), i did not know what to think – it was a confusing time. She had returned for summer holidays after a year at Mount Holyoke College, in the United State and I’d completed my first year at the University of Peradeniya, soon to transfer to Brandeis University. Our paths were diverging, and yet converging..  

Looking back, I realize that I felt bewildered by Mala’s poem, perhaps because I did not think of myself as ‘Tamil” or ‘Sinhala’, or anything (still don’t), having grown up in a ‘westernised’, rather leftist, multi-ethnic and multi-religious family, where it was considered ‘declasse’ and uncool to talk about one’s own or other people’s ethnicity, religion, caste etc. So Mala’s poem seemed kind, but slightly strange as it fixed me in an ‘identity box’, beside I did not want to be a ‘victim’ in need of the sympathy of others. Ah, the spaces between us! 

Later, we led parallel lives: studied anthropology in Graduate school in the US. We loved bird-watching and being in nature. There was almost a “sibling rivalry between us: She was a school prefect and I got the prize for best results at the A Levels. We applied in the same year to do post-graduate work at Princeton. She went on to the University of Chicago, and married Pradeep and returned to Sri Lanka for fieldwork. Later, with Dr. Kumai Jayawardena as mentor and Mangalika de Silva as convener, we worked with ‘Women for Peace’, on multiculturalism, colonialism, militarization, development, religion, identity politics etc. in Sri Lanka and South Asia. Mala’s work focused on the effects of violence, its victims, suffering, and the search for healing; epitomized in her interest in the Goddess Kanaki/Pathini, and collaboration and the exhibition with Shani Jayawardena. My work focused on the causes of conflict and violance, although the two (victims and perpetrators), often overlap. Mala and I still have overlapping academic and friends-networks. We worked in different ways for reconciliation.

The last time we met was at a small LC class reunion dinner and before that Jude, Jadon, Angela and I had visited her, taking lunch to the apartment after her first round of immunotherapy. Mala had various bouts with illness in the course of her life, but she never gave up and rarely took a break. Her work and commitment to leave behind a better world kept her going –almost to the end. She sought peace, and was not ‘religious’ in any conventional sense. May she attain the supreme peace of Nirvana.

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Latest comments

  • 11
    9

    Darani,

    Who are you? I am Darini,I am not a Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, I do not have a religion or caste I am above all these boring identities!.

    Only lower class people fight for race, religion, caste, religion etc. But I am above all these identities. I am proud about my heritage-westernized, English speaking upbringing.

    How you could be multicultural when none of you have any culture other than western mono-cultural species.

    Luckily as adults, you were “Anthropologists”. You could be objective because you do not belong to or emotionally belongs to any of the inferior groups that constantly quarrel over mundane things.
    I could empathize and respect Mala, but Darani is another kettle of fish!

    • 3
      0

      Don’t people have freedom to m ove away from inherited cultures and search for meaning within world cultures? Does one have to be aligned to one culture to be multicultural? I think to assume that the writer only has western monocultural…is risky? Many Sri Lankans however lose their original culture and identity when they go through OUR education plus international education even today. So it is not a national crime!

    • 1
      0

      Sri,
      .
      Gambadaiskolemahattaya will try to give some heretical views on this.

  • 8
    2

    First of all there is not much coverage of Mala’s demise in the Sri Lankan media.
    ======
    Darani “Only lower class people fight for race, religion, caste, religion etc”
    ==========
    I think what you are trying to say is that people who fight for race, religion, caste, religion are deemed low class by you.

    So you agree that the Sri Lankan Sinhala Political class is low class.

    If one race is being targeted for eradication their culture their language their heritage by the pollical class then they need they need to fight back to preserve their culture their language their heritage
    You may call them low class but who are you?

    • 3
      0

      R
      “…perhaps because I did not think of myself as ‘Tamil” or ‘Sinhala’, or anything (still don’t), having grown up in a ‘westernised’, rather leftist, multi-ethnic and multi-religious family, where it was considered ‘declasse’ and uncool to talk about one’s own or other people’s ethnicity, religion, caste etc. “
      Note that declasse is within single quotes, which suggests that it need not be taken literally.
      She could have used a better term like ungraceful instead. But she is not reputed for precision.
      *
      Some of our fears may be based on imagined threats: the threat to our culture, language and heritage has for well over a century been from imperialist domination and our willingly surrendering to it.

  • 4
    0

    Don’t people have freedom to m ove away from inherited cultures and search for meaning within world cultures? Does one have to be aligned to one culture to be multicultural? I think to assume that the writer only has western monocultural…is risky? Many Sri Lankans however lose their original culture and identity when they go through OUR education plus international education even today. So it is not a national crime!

    • 2
      0

      Siri
      Well said.
      We need to take off our identity based blinkers, even occasionally, to be able to appreciate other perspectives, regardless of whether we agree or disagree.

  • 3
    2

    Beautifully written recount about a friend Darini.

  • 1
    2

    ‘I did not think of myself as ‘Tamil” or ‘Sinhala’, or anything (still don’t), having grown up in a ‘westernised’, rather leftist, multi-ethnic and multi-religious family, where it was considered ‘declasse’ and uncool to talk about one’s own or other people’s ethnicity, religion, caste etc.’.
    .
    Would you approve someone not having had the privilege of an upbringing such as yours, to think of himself/herself as ‘Tamil” or ‘Sinhala’, or some other thing.
    .
    My ethnic identity is made to play a role in my destiny. If I am free of such shackles I too would be comfortable in your shoes.

  • 2
    2

    Darini

    .
    I’m rather an ignoramus; I hadn’t heard of Malathi. However, the youngest of my five sisters may have been been just a year senior to you. Her name was Dilini. Your school is still good because numbers are manageable. What can be done when there are 80 in a class, and it’s housed in a hall where there are four other classes?

    .
    I’ll try to say something about your school.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe

  • 1
    1

    Darini “having grown up in a ‘westernised’, rather leftist, multi-ethnic and multi-religious family, where it was considered ‘declasse’ and uncool to talk about one’s own or other people’s ethnicity, religion, caste etc.’.
    ======
    I would have thought growing up in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious family provides a dynamic and invigorating atmosphere for intellectual discussion on religion and caste that is tearing the world apart.
    ========
    so what is cool in your household. definitely not Kool.

  • 2
    3

    Geetika and Nivedita presented pictures of Malathi de Alwis that comprised her contributions as a researcher and writer and her personal qualities.
    This tribute is much lacking in those departments, but attracted more responses.
    I wonder why.

    • 2
      0

      S.J,
      Would it have anything to do with the fact that the author is a Tamil with a Sinhala spouse while Malathi was a Sinhalese with a Tamil spouse?

  • 1
    2

    A beautiful , moving eulogy which would have brought back a flood of memories to many who grew up in similar surroundings in and around that era. The writer has articulated her views on life fearlessly , giving hope for the future of this little island which has so much promise .

  • 0
    0

    PART ONE
    .
    SJ wonders why this attracted more attention than the other articles about the same persons (Rajan Philips has now added yet another).
    .
    The previous article by Rajan P. also got disappointing responses; it set me off on researching Robert Burns. I have read quite a bit of his poetry (and even taught some of it) but I didn’t know about his enthusiasm for the French Revolution. So, there are some articles that set us thinking and exploring, but we don’t have the time to provide feedback.
    .
    I have already indicated one reason for my commenting; there’s also an indication that Darini had been in the University of Peradeniya in 1983 – was it in the Dumbara campus at Polgolla? I entered Peradeniya in November 1982, and was twelve years older than most others. Being a Second Year student (my first year was as an External) I didn’t have to go to the detested Polgolla, which was set up in the mistaken belief that the Arts students were the “trouble makers”. We continue to make mistakes.

  • 0
    0

    PART TWO
    .
    However, another reason why joined in was the outburst by “srikrish”; I sympathised with his feelings, and in terms of sociology it must be taken seriously. I thought that this article would allow me to make comparisons among the various sorts of education that are to be found, even here in Asia, but then I saw that even to scratch the surface would take too long. And who would read it? Right now, there appears to be no education for anybody, but that, again, is misleading. The disparities are going to be exacerbated. The poor, and children with less sophisticated parents are going to be left even further behind, while those who have parent guiding them will not be affected much less.
    .
    My two grand-daughters, aged 7 and 5, are affected; children learn such a lot from their peers, and childhood is about laughter and playing and doing things. The school does send lessons home, and my daughter, who gave up managing Banks when the children came has now turned herself into a teacher.
    .
    They’re in Malaysia, now Selangor, a suburb of KL.

  • 0
    0

    PART THREE

    .
    They were in Ladies’ College for about nine months in 2019 – left just before the Presidential Elections. The school was good; yet they left.
    .
    When Malathi and Darini studied (correct me if I’m wrong) there was no English Medium. LC got rid of it before they were forced to; yet they maintained a high standard of English. That was because the majority of students had English at home, and it was the lingua franca in the school. “sirkrish” is right. The school was not an option for all. It wasn’t wealth that counted – we weren’t rich.
    .
    Now there is an “English Medium”, but my granddaughters were put in the Sinhalese Medium. It was deliberately done, so that they’d learn their Sinhala. A bit frustrating for the children, but that was not the primary reason for the “experiment” failing.
    .
    One reason for praising the school is that they tolerated the experiment, although it was pointed out even before they started that by admitting them, two others were denied places.

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