By Themal Ellawala –
This is a story about two strangers who showed care to each other. One of them I have known my entire life. The other I knew over the last five years. Both women taught me some of the most fundamental and indelible lessons in care – what it is, how to do it, who to extend it to (everyone), and why (because).
Kumudini Ellawala (née Hendrick) is my mother. Born on November 24, 1953, she bore me on September 23, 1990. My mother was my first instructor in care. She taught first by example. Her mornings were spent working as a doctor at medical clinics in Colombo’s public hospitals (the Ministry of Health dispensed transfers liberally), flipping the script of overburdened doctors who rush through appointments by taking her time with each and every patient, learning their stories, explaining jargon, pulling strings to get them care, giving them counsel. Her evenings were spent at home, bent over the stove, bent over the washer, bent over a broom, bent. Tired as she was, she never failed to listen to her children’s worries and soothe their hurts. My mother’s side of the extended family considered her the family doctor, the pacifist, the wise sage, and the problem solver. Hers was the duty of diagnosing ailments and putting out fires; the telephone in our home was a noisy and insistent affair. There was always time to visit an elderly lady or attend a funeral, no matter how distant. To participate in this family religious affair or show up to that wedding. My mother almost never said no, regardless of back aches and leg aches and a yearning for quiet. She also taught me about care by telling me about care. Our dinnertime conversations revolved around the suffering of her patients, or a moving story she read in the papers. My mother is not perfect, but her heart is extraordinarily quick to move and melt, a rarity. She bequeathed to me that heart and a conviction that I must care for the suffering of others.
Malathi de Alwis was (ah, the grief of that tense) my mentor. Born on October 6, 1963, she came into my life on January 20, 2016. An acquaintance encouraged me to reach out to her about an incipient research project on queer erotics in Sri Lanka I had begun imagining. My impostor syndrome wrote a hesitant email that I never expected a reply to. After all, why would someone so illustrious deign to reply to a veritable stranger, a lowly undergraduate at that? Malathi replied within the day. I can imagine her reading my (what I now recognize as hopelessly naïve and bombastic) email with an amused smile, perhaps, but her reply betrayed no sign of judgment or censure. She was warm and encouraging, and sincerely so. She worked her magic from the very start, connecting me to one of her students who ended up being my friend and research collaborator. Three emails later, she was suggesting feedback on my Institutional Review Board application and writing a letter of support to convince fastidious scholars in the First World that Sri Lanka is no violent backwater of colonial fantasies/nightmares. What Malathi said then in that letter, “I have the utmost confidence in Themal’s abilities,” is what she continued to say, in so many ways, throughout the past five years.
I met Malathi face-to-face for the first time in June 2016. I was invited into her apartment, as have many students, to be served love cake and scintillating conversation. Malathi’s curiosity about the world knew no bounds, and her equally limitless generosity meant that she showed an interest in all things, on their own terms. Our conversation meandered from my parents to my family – it was quickly established that my uncle, also a doctor, had treated her some years ago; connections are not hard to find in Sri Lanka, after all – my school years, my research, my life in the US. She sent me off with the request to send her my writing. A month, a confused security officer in her apartment building, and a drama of mistaken identities (she had Ellawala relatives; it is Sri Lanka, after all) later, I dropped off two papers. Despite the avalanche of essays she had to grade, Malathi took the time to read both. One was an exploration of queer dislocations from the nation, a “queer theoretical intervention” by a Sophomore psychology major (many moons ago) who lived the myth of Western queer possibility/Third World queer impossibility. In other words: a terrible paper. Our next meeting, to discuss her feedback, transpired in the back of a cab as we hurtled down and stalled on choked Colombo roads on our way to a music festival at the International Center for Ethnic Studies (Malathi had a habit of whisking me away to the most interesting events). My apprehensions were entirely futile, for her critique was tender and forgiving. Gentle questions led me through the process of unwrapping layer after layer of conceit, distancing maneuvers, and generalizations. Such was the effect of Malathi’s company and guidance – I could never leave her presence diminished and discouraged. The mirror she held up to you showed you at your best, and filled you with the hope of embodying it.
So began a relationship of mentorship, friendship, gossip, and discovery that spanned half a decade. Malathi taught me care in myriad ways. She recognized in me a young scholar who felt painfully out of place in Sri Lanka’s academic and activist scenes, and swore an unspoken pledge to help locate him. Hers was a style of mentorship that came naturally, with no regard for ownership or ego. Her apartment held little treasures, such as cake from a Russian bakery, for her supplicants. Malathi was an intrepid feminist anthropologist who taught me what care for justice looks like. She guided me through labyrinths of epistemic problematics and political nuances, always finding ways for me to complicate my thinking and sharpen my analytical skills. Her acuity was paired with a generosity that left anyone feeling like no theoretical hurdle was too great. But her vision of justice was not restricted to texts. Every email from Malathi bore news of yet another mutual aid effort she was involved in, and there were many. Until the very end, I would transfer money (through complicated processes that caused her no small measure of trouble) to support women’s education, daily wage earners, and sex workers during the pandemic. Malathi made care seem as necessary as breath.
It is no wonder that the two women who taught me so much about care, my mother and my mentor, found ways to care for each other. It began in 2018 with Malathi revealing that she had been diagnosed with cancer. An offhand comment that she had been advised to eat katu ātha (soursop, Annona muricata) for its healing properties, but struggled to find pesticide-free fruits at grocery stores, traveled from my ears to my lips over dinner with my mother than night. My mother reminded me that we have the very fruit planted in our garden. So began a ritual of her carefully guarding each maturing fruit from the monkeys that frequent our garden, plucking a fruit that passed muster, and carefully bagging it up for me to deliver to Malathi. Each katu ātha was accepted and eaten gratefully, and that was enough satisfaction for my mother. But Malathi wanted to offer more, and so took to passing some of her treasures on to my mother. So my mother became a recipient of such tokens as homemade Christmas cake Malathi had saved especially for her. When Malathi shared the details of her book project Archive of Memory: Reflections on 70 Years of Independence, she insisted on recording a story from my mother about her recollections of the ethnic conflict. I was the carrier pigeon between these two remarkable women and their bountiful exchange of humble goods.
When I discovered the tragic news that Malathi’s cancer had worsened in December of 2020, my mother was one of the first people I spoke to, through my tears and fears. From December 1st to this day, my mother chanted pirith (Buddhist verses meant to accrue merit) each morning and night in part to invest in Malathi for her health and wellbeing. Malathi too was caring to the end. In one of her last emails, typing through immense pain, she said: “I’m always happy to help you out in any way I can.” Her care was not limited to me, for the very last message of any kind she sent me ended with the words: “Grateful thanks too to your mum.”
I heard the news of Malathi’s passing on January 20, 2021, exactly five years since I first contacted her. My WhatsApp video call with my mother that night was choked with heartache, the tears streaming down our faces crossing oceans to connect us in shared loss.
All of this, and Malathi and my mother never met. They remained strangers to the very end. Theirs was a mutual care that extended to a stranger with no reservations. Each was important to me, and that was enough for the other. Theory and activism in the US has taught me much about care, and it has become inextricable from how I dream and act towards a different, more just, more hospitable world. Yet, my mother and Malathi helped me see, learn, unlearn, and do care in ways that defy language and abstraction. They taught me what it means to find the time, no matter what. To grit your teeth and offer yourself. That care offered at the limit of exhaustion can be restorative. That there is rarely a convenient time to care, there is simply time. That daily routines and responsibilities are fictions that can capitulate to care. That everyone is worthy of care. That care brings people together in unfathomable and achingly beautiful ways. That care is transformative. I do not say this in a cavalier manner, for care has been made into a uniquely gendered burden of women and femmes, in the service of dominant culture (Malathi herself has written poignantly about the complexities of motherhood). I recognize the heavy price one may pay in offering so many pieces of oneself (my mother has suffered much, Malathi was quite sick during most of my time with her). Yet, both of these women have taught me that within the very trap set by hegemony lies the means of freedom, that in care lies the conditions of possibility for a different world, hope for a future of cherished interdependency. I have also realized the necessity and urgency of reproducing this care, in part to care for them and other carers who come so close to dissolving the self for the other. Whenever I wonder if it is possible to care for strangers, I think about Kumudini and Malathi and I say “yes.”