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.
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.