Sunday, November 17, 2013

Garrison Cemetery

On the North end of the Bogambara lake is the hot-bed of Kandyan history. The Sri Dalada Maligawa, the old Courts Complex, St. Paul’s Church, the museum and the Queen’s Hotel all lie clustered together here. And in their midst, nestled against a hillside, lies the British Garrison Cemetery, almost forgotten.

From its establishment in 1822, this cemetery was the designated final resting place of many British and European greats from Sri Lanka’s colonial era. Despite the 1873 ban on burials within the municipal limits, special provision were made to allow relatives of those already laid there to be buried in the 3/4 acre plot. Then after Annie Fritz’s burial in 1951, even death seems to have died to the Garrison cemetery.

But Charles Carmichael, the 62 year-old caretaker at the grounds for the last 16-plus years, still lives.  And he lives to tell it’s tale to any and all who give ear, be it a simple gardener or the crown prince of the United Kingdom.

Carmichael was working on a building site at Primrose Hill in 1997. The site happened to be the home of Durand Goonetilleke's brother. Goonetilleke was (and still is) a trustee at St. Paul's Church in Kandy, which is the custodian of the British Garrison Cemetery. At the time, schools, businesses and local government were preparing with great enthusiasm to celebrate Sri Lanka's 50th independence anniversary, and the arrival of Prince Charles of Wales for the occasion. On the prince's itinerary was a visit to the old commonwealth burial grounds.

Unfortunately, the cemetery wasn't exactly a pleasing sight.

"It was like a big jungle," Carmichael is unmoved at the memory. "Everything was down, graves were broken. I think during the perahera time elephants had also been kept here."

Archived images of the pre-restoration cemetery hang in the caretaker's office, telling a ghastly story of disrepair. Gravestones and monuments lie in bits and pieces, all over the grounds, stealthily but violently taken over by weeds and mana. The cemetery's British origins probably made it a favorite site of grave robbers. And if the scores of monkeys rioting on the premises even with four or five gardeners and a backhoe making a commotion are any indicator in 2013, their ancestors have left them a legacy and heritage here too.

Goonetilleke signed Carmichael on to undo the damage. It took a whole year with 20 people working day in and day out to restore the place. The broken gravestones had to be pieced back together, the demolished marble and granite replaced with bricks and mortar. But they made do. On what date? the restoration project was completed and celebrated in the presence of British parliamentarians, and arrangements were finalized for Prince Charles' visit.

On January 25, 1998, days before the celebrations, a bomb-blast shook Kandy's relative isolation from LTTE activity, causing damage to some of the city's best known historic sites. Prince Charles never arrived, but Charles Carmichael had found a permanent job as caretaker of the cemetery.

"There were no people around, and it was difficult," Carmichael remembers his first few months of work. "But I started taking walks in the area, and I got used to it."

Carmichael's regular days are easy going. He opens up the gates at the end of the long windy road past the Cultural Triangle Office, at 8am, and gets to whatever maintenance work must be done. Then he must employ himself until late in the evening, around 6pm, when he closes up and makes his way home to his wife, children and grandchildren. In between, he's got himself JP Lewis’s 'List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon’ to keep him occupied. Over the years, Carmichael has read, learnt, filled the gaps in, and internalized the stories of those long gone, who travelled thousands of miles over weeks and months, lived a hard life in an alien environment, and died far from home.

Now when visitors arrive at the British Garrison Cemetery, Carmichael gives them an insider's tour of the nearly 200 graves. When Prince Charles of Wales finally visited the British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, on November 16, 2013, 15 years after the original tour date, he did it again.

"I consider him a regular tourist," Carmichael shrugs, "except I had change the words a bit, add a 'Your Majesty' or a 'Your Highness' here and there!"

Captain James McGlashan was the first dead person the prince was introduced to.

McGlashan, Carmichael says, was a distinguished soldier who made a name for himself in many battles. There are question about who this McGlashan really was and where he really fought, but one thing is for sure; he was somewhat reckless. The story goes that, confident of his physical prowess, McGlashan accepted a wager, and walked from Trincomalee to Kandy. On the way, he was drenched continuously in the tropical rains, and four days after his arrival in the city, forced to accept his fate at the hands of a violent fever.

"He won the bet, but he lost his life," Carmichael shrugs, bemused.

If the records are correct, McGlashan was 26 when he died. And if the records are correct, many others of those buried here died that young.

Alice Higgs, wife of Francis Wharton Le Marchand, died on January 24, 1859, giving birth to her first child. She was 20. A brochure printed by the Friends of the British Garrison Cemetery says John Robertson was the seventh and last recorded European to be killed by a wild elephant in then Ceylon. Robertson was 33 years old, possibly out hunting, when the elephant gave chase. Reports are divided but he was either killed by the creature or all the running caused sunstroke that led to his death.

Having dwelt in these stories for years, Carmichael has earned some license with them, and guesses that "maybe he was fat" and just almost laughs as he says it.

Others have died at 35, 30, 27 and a William Sydney Smith "21 years and 9 months" as one inscription reads. It hints at a bittersweet awareness that one pays in some way or the other for the privileges of a colonial life in the tropics.

William Elleray, surgeon, died at 33. "How could the others have survived?" Carmichael asks, half joking, but evidently stumped.

Worse still is a memorial stone erected in the memory of the "five infant sons" of "G and M Wait." But Carmichael knows the story is not as sad as it seems; there were 14 children in that family, he says.

And in the stillness of the midday sun, the weathered caretaker still has stories left to tell, all heart-filling in some way.

Margaret Griegson knew at 69 that she didn't have much time left. She was determined to see her son, serving on the forces in Ceylon, one last time before she quit the earth. So she boarded a ship at London, survived the trip to the tropics, and after three or four blissful months spent living her final wish, died where her child was.

Not much is known of Oteline Rudd except that she died at 37 years, and that she was the wife of William Rudd, a wealthy merchant. Carmichael says our own Robin Hood, the well-known Saradiyel once decided Rudd's treasure was extravagant enough to deserve his attention and plunder. He imagines the robbery "didn't even touch Rudd" who, it is said, owned whole mountain ranges and provinces in India and Sri Lanka. But as many great men have fallen, it is also said of him that he was ultimately not left with a chair in his name to sit on.

It is hard, very hard indeed, to imagine the richness of the history that lies buried in the grounds of the British Garrison Cemetery. Some are tales of simple folk, some of such greats as John D’Oyly, John Frasier and Lady Elizabeth Gregory. Carmichael loves telling their stories, and teaches them to 22 year-old Harsha who he believes will take his place when it comes his turn to live on the other side of the grass. But not many venture their way.

As the sun sets on the hills, Charles Carmichael locks up the small wrought-iron gate, closes up the caretaker’s office and prepares to leave. He walks down the windy road, freshly-tarred for Prince Charles’ visit, making a wish: “that more people will come tomorrow.”

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Profile: Antonio Ciocia and Santore

Antonio Ciocia first arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005, as Head of Security at the Italian Embassy in Colombo. The first four years he spent on the island were so good that in January 2011, a few months after leaving and trying to build a life in Cape Verde, he gave up and came back.

For two whole years, Ciocia scouted Colombo for the right location for a restaurant.

“It’s not easy, especially if you don’t know the place,” he shakes his head. “In the beginning I started to go by taxi, then tuk-tuk” he laughs, “then walking.”

His searches turned up nothing.

Then less than six months ago, a friend told him about the Sri Lanka Tennis Association. The administration was looking for someone to run a cafe on the premises, so Ciocia went and checked it out. It was dirty, but he loved the floor and the garden space. It clicked.

Things were suddenly on a roll, so as he began working on the renovation of the space, Ciocia got in touch with his brother back in Bari, Italy. He had found the house, but how does one run a restaurant without a chef? Ciocia’s brother had already heard about a young genius who made “fantastic” pizza and so he went to Kintamari and put the idea to Domenico Capodiferro.

Capodiferro, a third generation chef, was already in his element at a bustling pizzeria, but a matter of days later, he called back to say he was in. Santore got born.

In the two months since Capodiferro arrived in Sri Lanka, Ciocia’s introduced him to the people and places that made him fall in love with the island.  They have become close and developed a good relationship. Ciocia believes Capodiferro will be here “forever”.

Ciocia has spent a fair amount of time rendezvousing at restaurants in Rome and understands that being a chef is a lot more organizing and managing work than it looks like. He also appreciates the huge risk the 23-year-old chef has taken, leaving behind a job in Italy during a financial crisis. Ciocia takes the responsibility seriously, not just for Capodiferro, but the whole staff that works with him, and it is unlikely the restaurant will dwindle to a mere business.

Pizza is their pride, and the Italian wood-oven takes centre-stage at Santore. Their Santore, four-cheese and spicy Diavola pizzas have so far been the biggest hits, Ciocia says. They also have a comprehensive anti-pasta, pasta and salad menu including sharing options, starting at Rs.700. The pizzas come to your table piping hot with a crispy crust burnt just right, and the pastas are wonderfully flavoured.

Their aged cheeses and preserved fruits and vegetables all come from Italy. Ciocia is worried that Mozzarella will not do well travelling such distance, so he gets it fresh from Italians who make it in Sri Lanka. And when 

Capodiferro arrives to start the evening’s work, he walks in carrying bags of fresh vegetables. The young chef takes special pride in making his grandmother’s famous chocolate biscuit pudding, and the decadent cashew, chocolate Santore special as part of the South Italian desserts menu. There is obviously a lot of care and passion behind the restaurant, and this, more than the “Italianness” of it all, is what makes the food as “authentic” as it gets.

Ashok Ferry is one who is “absolutely a pizza person” as long as it’s authentic. At the jam-packed soft launch for the restaurant on October 11, he puts his thumb and forefinger together and yells “superb!” over the hubbub as he fights for his second slice of pizza. The place is buzzing.

“I am a party person. I love parties,” Ciocia smiles.

When he lived and worked in Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2009, Ciocia hosted a couple of parties ... every week. 

He remembers having over 150 people at his home once, and guests queuing in the kitchen at 9p.m. on the dot. The food was out in half an hour.

At the soft launch, people are jostling to get their hands on even a slice of pizza and prettily dressed young ladies are unelegantly stretching cheese strings across tables. Ciocia walks over to crazy-busy Capodiferro at the pizza bar and starts saying “please” for a slice when another man informs him angrily, “Hey! I was here first”.

“And I’m the owner!” Ciocia laughs.

Rest assured, it is the most relaxing place. The atmosphere is nice and the colour-tones warm. The bar is more modern and cooler, which, though it might not work artistically, is a good picture of the informality of the place. You go here for good food and fun, no pressure. There are little clay lanterns bordering the garden, giving off a soft glow in the evening. The furniture is very simple, plain wooden chairs and tables with minimal decor. Inside, the floor is the old red tile that the architects wanted to remove during renovation, but Ciocia liked too much to change. The place is just cosy. It’s easy to imagine that this is an Italian home where everybody is talking at the same time and there is too much food on the table and enough laughter to fuel the oven.

And if you’re not in for a full South Italian meal, in a few weeks, Santore will be a great place for winding down on a weeknight. The rooftop is currently bare, but Ciocia has plans for a Mediterranean bar. And there’s not much sounds better than a plain old pizza party under the stars.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: Worship Players Jesus Christ Superstar

Jerome de Silva’s Jesus Christ Superstar sold out twelve shows in a few days. With a cast like he managed to bring together added to the fame of Tim Rice’s lyrics and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, this was really not a surprise.

The show was the work of amateurs and carried with it some of the so-so quality of such productions. But considering the reputation and expectation there was to live up to, it did surprisingly well, even on a mid-run night.

As happens too often, it feels, there was a lot of obvious use of technology involved in the production.  And if it’s obvious, then there is something wrong. The opening scenes had carefully orchestrated lighting schemes that were quite stunning, except that they were not well timed with the sound-track. But as Jesus breathed his last and the skies broke open, the lights worked well to create an awe-inspiring effect that forced some of the audience back against their seats.

There was a very differently awesome moment in the simple sparkle in ‘Could We Start Again Please’. It was poignant and sincere, and for the first time in a long time I had goose bumps on my arms as Gehan Blok walked on as Judas, to accompany Kavitha Gunesekera’s Mary Magdalene for the last few notes.

Blok has become a familiar name and face on stage, but the fact that his lungs were matched with equally capable vocal cords was probably not well known until now. He sang Judas with strength and good tone, often overshadowing Chrisantha CC de Silva’s performance of Jesus. This was definitely not CC’s best night, and he did not live up to the acting skills required of the star of the show. His voice, nevertheless, came out mellower and better controlled than one usually hears from him in the music scene.

Mario De Soyza playing Pilate and Dominic Kellar playing Herod were probably the most mature performances of the night, Pilate especially being very subtly controlled. Herod was only as funny as he was expected to be, but fortunately or unfortunately, Pusswedilla will haunt Kellar wherever he goes. For Jerome de Silva and his Jesus Christ Superstar though, a Pusswedilla-Herod sure worked.

As far as musicals go, Colombo saw something wonderful through the run of the show. Jerome De Silva’s passion for meaningful and well-produced theatre drew many tears over the ten days, and we congratulate the cast and crew on creating an unforgettable experience. Colombo, one can be sure, unanimously looks forward to more!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The 'Roundabout' Church: Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church celebrates 200 years

Link up to published version 
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; 
Do not spare; 
Lengthen your cords, 
And strengthen your stakes…”

Rev. S. J. de S. Weerasinghe quoted from Isaiah 54:2 and 3 at the end of the 1988 historical record of the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church.

“The challenge of community outreach, the impulsion of our cultural heritage and the vision of an ecumenical perspective. As I see it, these are the directions in which our immediate future should be deeply involved, with firm resolve and purposeful action” were the final words he penned in to the document.

The Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church turns 200 years old this month. It stands at the busiest intersection in Colombo, one that has been transformed dramatically over the years. And at the turning of the century, it is a reflection of this metamorphosis, expanding and growing into a truly “local” church.

The ‘Elite’ Church

Rev. James Chater, Sri Lanka’s first Baptist missionary, arrived on the island with his wife, Anne, and four children, in 1812. His 1813 sermon “in a warehouse somewhere in the Pettah,” marked the beginning of the Baptist Church in Sri Lanka.

Original membership, according the church history, was “made up entirely of Europeans and Burghers”. Many of its early pastors were simply Baptist missionaries with plans to move inland once they had a working knowledge of the people and language of Sri Lanka. So the church rarely had the same pastor for longer than a few years at a time.

Despite this situation the congregation was strengthened in its convictions and grew in number and commitment, starting prayer meetings and bible studies and even subscribing to build “a proper place of worship”.

It took a quarter of a century for that place to materialize, but in 1875, a plot of land was bought in Cinnamon Gardens for Rs. 4,181. A foundation stone was laid on April 4, 1876 and the church of Rev. F. D. Waldock’s design was built by 1877 at the expense of Rs. 22,126.

A Sinhala church that met separately in the Pettah warehouse in the 1870s was also invited to move its meetings to the Cinnamon Gardens premises. But the English church continued to be a colonial endeavor until 1874, when Mr. P. D. De Silva, the first Sinhala name to appear on the church records, was elected deacon.

In 1874 the congregation also became independent of the Baptist Missionary Society. So in 1875, the then Open Communion Baptist Church became the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church, celebrating both the independence and the physical move.

Becoming the ‘Roundabout’ Church

When they first bought the property, the Cinnamon Gardens locality was highly residential, described in the church history as a “leafy solitude”. But the bustle of the Pettah quickly followed the congregation to the intersection at the Lipton circus.

During the Second World War, the church neighborhood was a hub of activity. The presence of foreign armed forces gave the church plenty of opportunity to “exercise Christian hospitality”. And in return, as the record goes:

“These young forces personnel flooded our church, took the [youth movement] by storm and almost ran it, swelled our choir and occupied our pulpit.”

So much so that once the forces left, the church fell into a “lull”. But this “lull” brought other good news.

The 1898 history records an “attempt to unite the Sinhala/Tamil and English congregations,” in order to get away from the elitist label it had gained over the years. Although this attempt didn’t bear immediate fruit, there was gradual change. Half a century later, it was obvious that the membership had become “less exclusive than it was once, and … a much truer cross section of the educated population of Ceylon”.

The metamorphosis boomed in the late 1950s. Rev. Sutton Smith revived evangelism with open-air programs and creative presentations of the gospel even in rural areas and prisons. He also strengthened inclusiveness by turning the separate Sinhala/Tamil and English churches into one church with two congregations in 1961. In 1963, he concluded the 150th anniversary history with strong words:

“The fact is that we are faced today with a daunting task, and we are not sufficient for it … May God make us a people of prayer, a dedicated people, willing to be used, people strong enough in the Spirit to take the opportunity that lies outside our Church doors."

Nihal Perera, one of the oldest and most senior members of the current congregation remembers Sutton Smith’s time, and sees the transformation the church has gone through, since:

“This church is primarily for the Sinhala and Tamil speaking roundabout community … In my youth, all the members came from far away. Now, the members and leaders in the Tamil/Sinhala congregation originally came from the nearby tenements.”

A significant event in this transformation took place in the 1980s when the Sunday school doors were opened to all children in the neighborhood.

“It was supposed to be the bourgeois Colombo 07 area” Perera says, “and we were also tagged as a Colombo 07 church. But from that time we tried hard to break through that and say we are for the people in the area.”

As Perera remembers it, the church “tried to be indigenous. We introduced Sinhala singing and songwriting, used the magul bere and the thabla, and had our plays in Sinhala and Tamil. When all these people were calling us a Colombo 7 church, we were having avurudu celebrations!”

The ‘Purpose-Driven’ Church

On February 20, 1988, the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church took another solid step towards becoming a truly local body. Rev. Kingsley Perera was ordained and became the first national pastor of the church.

Rev. Perera was Assistant Commissioner at the Department of Probation and Child Care Services until 1987 and his interest in social work continued to influence his pastoral work. Through his initiative, in 1992 the church opened the Dev Piya Sevana, where they housed many of their already well-established outreach programs including a cafeteria and counseling services. This further helped the church to reach out, as Sutton-Smith envisioned, outside its doors.

But the most recent and tangible change came about in the lead up to the Easter of 2007. Under the guidance of current pastor Rev. Gary Dean, the church body took on the ‘Forty Days of Purpose’ study by Rick Warren.

“I don’t know how folks knew about it,” Rev. Dean muses. But the impact was tangible. “It was a powerful time.”

Nearly 80 percent of the congregation was involved in a study group during the period. This led to greater involvement of the membership in all areas of church activity, and a radical restructuring of its organization and constitution.

Rev. Kingsley Perera, now in his retirement, looks at the current congregation and is encouraged.

“There has been tremendous growth in the church, both physically and spiritually,” he says.

And as far as one may see and hear, the congregation at the Colombo 7 roundabout has grown as Rev. Weerasinghe envisioned, steadily, over two centuries, into a truly purpose driven church.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

MemoryScape: Layla Gonaduwa

Both the woman and the art are like the hair. There’s shape to the short-ish style, but a few flyaway strands get caught in her fingers. It’s black, like everyone else’s, but the highlights wink a little “colour”, and if you look closely enough, a grey strand here and there will tell you she’s given life something to reckon with.

Layla Gonaduwa, self-labelled “inspirationalist” and artist, is showcasing her latest solo work, a collection of 30 wall installations in copper and enamel at the Barefoot Gallery, from October 5 to 15. The exhibition, titled ‘MemoryScape’, is what she sees as the beginning of a backward-autobiographical process.

“It’s some part of letting go,” she explains, “but also definitely an embracing and coming to terms with.”

Each piece in the collection is inspired by a distinct and intensely personal memory from the past two years or so.

“It might be difficult for people to figure out what I’m trying to say, but to me, it’s definitely snapshots of moments in my life.”

While her previous dream-inspired exhibition was more 3D, in the artist’s words, this is “more flat”.

“There is no case of interpreting it in a different way ... Maybe not for the viewer, but for me, there is no room to go anywhere else. There is no room to change colour or design, it will always be that for me.”

Knowing the exact memory the pieces spring from, imbues the colours, textures and other details with greater significance for the viewer. All the more so, since the installations are very much a literal translation of visual and auditory memory to visual and tactile symbols. One does not need a sophisticated understanding of line and light to interpret the collection. But this literalness also opens the possibility of making things concrete.

Needless to say, Gonaduwa is bold. Her glittering pottu and nose-stud testify to that. The current collection grew out of diary-entry like pieces of writing that she scrawled randomly, making it a huge emotional investment. She is not sure how she will deal with a public response and therefore it seems necessary to cement her art in this way.

The collection is also intentionally colourful, because, as she puts it, laughing, “I’ve had a very colourful life!”

With each set of pieces, Gonaduwa exhibits the writing that inspired it. Again, snapshots, abstract, but not too obscure.

“I have kept this [project] very close to my heart,” she admits. “My kids have seen some of it, but otherwise I’ve been very closed with this.”

As the project is very personal, so is the process of producing it.

“It’s an intensely physical process,” she enthuses, “and that physicalness is addictive.”

Gonaduwa works with a 50-year-old electric kiln. Once in her studio for the day, she switches it on, and while it heats up to around 1700 degrees Celcius, works through the concepts for the pieces. She first fires the copper sheet and then plunges it in water, to purify it, repeating the process until she’s happy with how it looks. Then she lays powdered glass on the copper and fires it again. This is the tricky part.

When the glass powder is laid on, Gonaduwa knows how she wants the colours and the textures to materialize. But they don’t always come out how she plans, so she’s apprehensive until she sees the final creation.

On the flip side, “there is always the chance that things might come out better than you expected” she laughs.

The glass is fired repeatedly and layer upon layer of powder applied until the depth of colour and texture she wants are achieved or even approached. In the process, the copper and glass layers are also infused into each other. Sometimes she adds fabrics, precious metals and other organic materials to the pieces as she works. The final result is a sheet of glittering, textured, patterned, brilliantly coloured glass on copper. 

These sheets are laid out, in linear progression, like mosaic tiles, to tell the story of each memory.

Through great physical exertion, she has forged a technically innovative visual representation of the electro-chemical patterns in her brain. The collection is more the artist than one might expect. The installations are uniform frames of tradition barely containing rebelliously brilliant colours that mask, if only minimally, depth and sometimes rough texture.

Layla Gonaduwa is an artist and single mother of two children without whom she would be “nothing”.
The exhibition is ultimately a flamboyant display of maternity and femininity forged, literally, in fire, declaring “look at me, this is who I am.”

“And who I am, constantly changes” she laughs.

MemoryScape is open for public viewing at the Barefoot Gallery from October 5 to October 15.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: Bernie Hay

She writes about growing up in convents in the hill country decades ago. She must be one of those delicately built, demure ladies in a nondescript sari, with graying hair pulled neatly into a bun at the back of her head.

Not so.

Bernie Hay launched her second book, “Love, Learning and Laughter” on Saturday, September 7. The title seems incongruous in a current context, but the book and the author both surprise, and a meaningful book launch seemed to say there is much hope for the future.

“Love, Learning and Laughter” traces Hay’s experiences from childhood to her teenage and early adult years spent primarily at St. Agnes’ Convent, Matale and Good Shepherd Convent, Kandy. It is in fact a collection of articles previously published in The Sunday Times and The Sunday Island, with some tweaking.

The book is organized as a series of brief images into the life and thinking of a shepherdess-in-the-making. Hay shows us a fressh seven-year-old boarder’s sincere astonishment with the fact that nuns have toes and relates with disbelieving laughter, a nine-year-old girl’s earnest prayer as regards feminine lingerie. She writes simply, earnestly, enticingly.

But a collection of this sort that is lucid and yet tongue-in-cheek does not come by easily. It is mostly the product of what Rev. Mary Gertrude, Principal of Good Shepherd Convent, Kandy (and guest of honour at the launch), called a “bygone era” when love and laughter did in fact encompass learning. As Hay demonstrates in her writing, the mischief of their childhood equipped her with a full knowledge of the range of suitable punishments. But the deeper understanding she is left with is that the sisters that punished her loved her, and were ever ready to laugh at her escapades.

As Chief Guest at the launch, Rev. Stephen Abraham, past principal of St. Anthony’s College, Kandy pointed out, such a learning environment is rare in the current context. “Tutories” have replaced traditional schools, and our systems are producing “learned monsters” instead of educated human-beings, he said. “Teachers are potters... lamps to help illuminate the darkness of ignorance.”

Hay is proof of the old-fashioned attitude to teaching as moulding life. She enjoyed her “convent days” and then went on to the University of Peradeniya, received a M. Phil in Education (Linguistics) from the University of Colombo, taught at prestigious institutions around the country and abroad, and has been published in the Asia Reader’s Digest.

The sincerity and truth of Rev. Abraham’s address echoed that of the book and the launching ceremony. “Love, Learning and Laughter” being about young shepherdesses, it was fitting that it was in fact young shepherdesses that ran the evening. Thurumi Rathnayake, Shehani Wijewardena and Karen Tennakoon, students from the two convents, read and even sang excerpts from the two books with skill and enthusiasm that held the gathering enrapt. Their voices rang of a genuine relationship with the text which could only spring from an understanding of the experiences it related. And that spoke volumes of the school days they still have to grasp and make something of.

Principal of St. Agnes’ Convent, Matale, Rev. Mary Dilrukshi expressed her hope that “Love, Learning and Laughter” would be an inspiration to current and future generations of shepherdesses. Hay is of the same mind.

Nothing of what we imagined, she wears a loose leopard-print blouse over black slacks and deep red lipstick, and sports a short crop of jet-black hair. The author and her book are as surprising to us, as life was to her. Standing at the podium at the Good Shepherd Convent Main Hall, Bernie Hay remembers the dreams she dreamt in that very place, many many years ago.

“Some of those dreams were realized, some sadly not. But amazingly, some things I never dreamt of happened. So go on dreaming, girls...”

*“Love, Learning and Laughter” and Bernie Hay’s first book, “Lives that Touched My Own” are both available at Sarasavi Bookstores.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pearl Stephen: A Global Legacy

link up to published version

It was impossible for the woman to keep this beautiful 8-month-old boy. The girl-child was her original burden, and their father, for all his “love,” wasn't going to provide for illegitimate children. He had another family to take care of. She was helpless.

Then someone told her she should go to Kandy town and find the wife of a certain pastor. They told her she would help.

The woman was sitting with her child in the Kandy City Mission lobby when the pastor’s daughter walked in. The 16-year-old girl couldn't think of a single thing more delightful than a baby at home, so she connived and cajoled and finally convinced her mother to take the baby in.

So began the story of Pearl Stephen's legacy.

Pearl Stephen was a remarkable woman, an award-winning social worker and activist. She was best known as the founder-director of the Women’s Development Center which has strengthened thousands of underprivileged women and children all across Sri Lanka. Yet her greatness lay not in what she did, but who she was.

The night Pearl gave in to her daughter Shanthi’s pleas, the baby refused to take a bottle. The child’s screams of hunger echoed through the house, punctuated by the scoldings of Pearls’ husband and Shanthi’s father, Rev. George Stephen.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Shanthi, now Thilakaratne, half-laughs, half-cries. “So we did the only thing we could think of. We prayed.”

Eventually, the baby became an inseparable part of the family. More and more destitute women began to show up looking for the Madam who would somehow help, and Pearl just kept taking them in.

“We used to joke that it was like living at the Fort Railway Station,” her older son, Frank Stephen, reminisces. “Sometimes at breakfast I didn’t know who I was eating with. And sometimes I was even angry about it.”

People from all walks of life were in and out of their home. But when the number of children living in the manse got out of control, Pearl finally set up a home in Balana, Kadugannawa.

But she didn’t stop there.

Pearl started asking why these children from the streets were showing up at her doorstep, and the answer was the women. Unwanted pregnancies, abusive lovers, financial dilemmas and all other domestic problems take their toll on the women of the house. Without the support or know-how to deal with these situations, many are forced to abandon their children.

In the aftermath of the violence of 1983, Pearl decided to take her passion to a new level. A table and a few chairs in the church garage, and the Women’s Development Center was a registered Non-Government Organization by 1986.

Pearl, her friend and co-social-worker Annie Kurian and three others were the original staff. They travelled to rural areas, gathering volunteers and helped in small ways to uplift the women they met. By the time the rioting began again in the late 80’s, the WDC was well resourced. It was able to distribute provisions to stricken families and supplies to over 1,000 schoolchildren in many districts, through their volunteer groups.

Since then, the WDC has grown into a 150-strong force of determined, lively women with forums in ten districts from Vavuniya to Nuwara-Eliya and Ampara. They currently network, equip and mobilize over 15,000 women to effect transformation towards gender equality at grassroots level through advocacy, prevention, intervention and rehabilitation. Their Community Based Rehabilitation program works with over 600 children and youth with disabilities in Kandy and Matale, operating nine centers through a 43-member staff. The WDC HIV/AIDS Prevention program introduces alternative income generation opportunities to commercial sex workers and education to vulnerable groups and government departments such as police officers. They also provide Family/Psychological and Legal Counseling free of charge.

The Crisis Intervention Center in Haragama does the heart-work of the WDC, providing shelter to destitute women and young girls who have been sexually abused. Pearl’s vision was to meet ignored needs.
Looking back, her son Frank sees 1993 as a point-of-no-return in his mother’s career. A group of women from Batticaloa that arrived in Kandy for training at the WDC were taken into custody by the police, along with some staff.  Pearl was suspected of aiding the LTTE.

“That was when she knew she really had to keep doing this,” Frank says.

Among the staff that was taken away was Pearl’s driver, Felix Wijerathne. It was only his first week of work at the WDC when he was almost accused of transporting terrorists into Kandy.

Since being released, Felix aka “Wijey” has been cross-country countless times with Pearl and has story upon story to tell of their adventures together. Some of these stories are funny, some bizarre, some even scary. But what stands out of them is the relationship Pearl built with her employees.

Once, Wijey, the only Sinhala person in the vehicle, was asked to stay behind at an LTTE check point in Mullativu, while the others went ahead to Kilinochchi.

“Madam didn’t want to leave me there alone, so she stayed behind with me and asked the others to go ahead,” Wijey says, admiringly. “There was never a madam-driver distance in our relationship, sometimes we ate out of the same plate.”

Pearl moved across social barriers as readily as she moved across the country when she thought there was a need she could fulfill. She had a good grasp of English, Malayalam, Sinhala and Tamil and this equipped her to reach out to any and all.

“She never said no,” Shanthi smiles. “If a pregnant girl showed up at the Crisis Intervention Center and I turned her away for lack of space, I would get scolded. If there are no beds, she'd say, let her sleep on the ground, or tell one of the other girls to give up their bed. For her, it was not about the WDC, it was about the girls.”

To countless of these women that have been through the WDC, she was a mother, friend and mentor. What set Pearl apart from others who play these roles in society, was the fact that she listened, in every sense of the word, to those she led.

“She never turned anyone away from her office without letting them speak,” Shanthi says.

And she listened.

Pearl heard a cry rise in her city that most did not. The cry of the down-trodden woman. And she chose to answer it with every breath.

Most trees, as Pearl's brother, Rev. Reggie Ebenezer shared at her funeral service, are hardest at the heartwood. But palms, on the contrary, are hardest at the bark and softest at the center.

This was Pearl.

She came across as curt and businesslike on the surface, but inside, she ached for the marginalized, the unsung heroes on whose shoulders the powerful ride.

As her husband George Stephen sees it, there was one such unsung hero in Pearl’s childhood whose story spurred her on. Her mother, Mary Ebenezer, was a humble Malayalam woman who served her husband, an exacting man, day in and day out. This was Pearl’s reality of gender relations until she was married to Rev. George Stephen.

George Stephen is a humble man. He saw the relationship of his wife’s parents and decided one morning, that his relationship with his wife would be completely different.

“She was like his slave,” he says, thoughtfully. “I decided I would reverse that.”

The love and mutual respect they had was what inspired Pearl to share the possibility with other women. Her children know that Pearl could not have impacted the lives of half the people she helped, if not for her husband.

“A lot of the time, women are pressured to stay at home and look after domestic affairs,” Shanthi muses, “but Dadda always supported her and it was because of him that she went so far.”

“For my mother, women could go anywhere,” Frank says, “but the difference was, she wasn’t a feminist. She was firmly grounded in the family.”

Pearl’s oldest grandson, Sean Stephen, knew his grandmother was a woman passionate about her work. But it was not until after her death that he began to understand the breadth of her reach, and the force of the impact she made. Until then, he knew her great cooking, the dumplings she made on his birthday, and her calm demeanor.

“She had a bubbly laugh,” he smiles, “and her whole body shook with it.”

Sean remembers that “Pearl Mummy” always took the time to do little things that made her many biological, legal and self-declared grandkids feel special. Her children remember her beef curry, the lime pickle and stewed mangoes. They remember how she cooked, how she sewed, how she was their everything. Her husband George remembers what a wonderful companion and strong helper she was.

But Pearl Stephen’s legacy was not built just for these. Pearl’s legacy was built for every woman that packed the Presbyterian Church at her funeral service. For every woman who stepped up, boldly out of their comfort zones, to bear her coffin.

Pearl Stephen’s legacy was built for every woman with a crushed heart and a broken body, whose 8-month-old child has no place to call home.