Opinion

To my sister Alfreda - a tribute

"I don’t know how to talk about Alfreda", writes Anne Ranasinghe, in the tributes paid her by her colleagues. From where then should I begin to write of a sister who was a legend in her lifetime.

Alfreda was the eldest in a family of six. From an early age she had been entrusted to the care of her maternal grandmother, Rachel Wijesinghe, an illustrious, remarkable woman, with a magnetic personality. She had been educated in the venerated CMS Girls’ School in Kotte, where she came under the distinguished influence of Mrs. R. T. Dowbiggin.

After some years as a teacher, grandmother became Head Mistress of Udugampola Balika, which post she held for 35 long years. After she retired she came to live in Pagoda. Our parents, Alfred and Sarath Perera, lived in Kelaniya. Alfreda was weaned away from Kelaniya for schooling purposes and what better place could there have been than grandma’s home in Pagoda.

In her book "Pagoda House", Alfreda immortalised the grand old lady and all who lived there and the events that took place. The only bachelor uncle was Uncle Harry - H. J. Wijesinghe. Alfreda writes of her visits to grandma’s friends after attending church services on Sundays. Every evening she had sat at Grandma’s feet listening to the stories she narrated.*Grandma had a perfect knowledge of both Sinhala and English. Inspired by grandmother, Alfreda began to write. At the age of four she had begun to contribute articles to the "Wendy Hut" and regularly wrote to the Daily News "Blue Page" followed by contributions to the Times of Ceylon "Young Timer’s" page. Alfreda, however, in moments of loneliness which she found difficult to overcome, aimed for Kelaniya where her parents, grandparents, two little brothers, Shirley and Alfred, and a little sister, lived. She used to visit them accompanied by gramdma, in the family buggy cart.

In a series of articles in The Island news Paper "Songs of Kelaniya" which were memories of childhood, Alfreda gives vivid accounts of our paternal grandparents. "It was a treat to be with my tall slim, wasp waisted, olive skinned grandmother, old now, still beautiful". Then she writes of "Grandfather whose olive skin matches hers. He has a long white beard. His hair is tied in a knot above his neck"

Favourite pupil

Alfreda first attended S. Johns’ Girls’ School in Nugegoda and then Girton School. Both schools were close to Pagoda House. She was a favourite pupil of Constance Blacker, the principal, who found her a gifted student and provided opportunities for her talents to flourish. She also came under the tutelage of dedicated teachers of the calibre of Mrs. Spencer Sheppard and Cora Abraham.

From Kelaniya, our parents came to reside in Pagoda. A brother and sister were added to the family Irwin and Myrtle. Alfreda continued studies and later entered the Government Training College where after successfully completing the course, she was appointed to S. John’s Girls’ School, Nugegoda, where mother too taught for many years. Later she taught at S. Joseph’s Convent, where she will always be remembered, when the school song is sung. She composed it.

The marriage between Kingsley and Alfreda in 1943 was a very happy union. Alfreda composed the hymn which was sung at their wedding. It has been sung at several family weddings there after. Alfreda called him "King" and she was always his queen. Kingsley was a great source of strength and inspiration to her throughout. They were blessed with a daughter - Shyami, and their cup was full and running over.

Shyami, their only child was a great source of joy and later in life a support and comfort. Her marriage to Mohan Dodanwela and the subsequent birth of their children Anushka and Mohan were high points in Alfreda’s life. She dedicated a book of poems to her grandchildren whom she adored. She was proud of their academic performances abroad and awaited their return. Back at home Anushka was a regular visitor, visits Alfreda looked forward to. She loved to listen to Anushka’s beautiful voice when she sang. She also used to say how very chivalrous Manjiv was towards her and how at social gatherings he used to come round to inquire whether she was comfortable, always showing concern.

Alfreda will always be remembered very specially by her family for her concern over each and every member. She was a very Dutiful daughter, in sickness and in health her concern and care for our parents never diminished. She considered it her sole responsibility and privilege to see to their welfare.

She was a caring sister. I remember when a brother had to undergo surgery she took it on herself to get him transferred from a hospital where a strike was on, to another, for better attention. She met the doctors personally. I did not envy the nurses in attendance. She gave them several calls a day to monitor his progress which annoyed them. He is ever grateful. She was fond of the nephews and nieces. They in turn looked up to her. When another brother passed away she was overwhelmed with grief. She was a very sensitive person.

She never forgot family birthdays. The first to wish would always be Alfreda, along with, "I have something for you", which invariably happened to be one of those special sarees put away for sister Myrtle and me. She did not forget the others too.

Alfreda was modest. There were occasions when she would call and ask for my comments on an article she had written to the new’ paper and much to my mortification, I had not read it. I would go through it immediately and call her to say it was wonderful reading. At the other end I could hear "Do you really think so", or "Are you sure you’re not exaggerating?" followed by a chuckle.

Picture of elegance

Alfreda was always the picture of elegance. She adhered to a dress code of her own and very particular of the accessories that matched. I remember when our parents were residing in Diyatalawa in the fillies, our family met at holiday time, I used to enjoy going shopping with her in search of "coolie sarees". Kingsley would drive us down to Haputale or Bandarawela and there would be my sister collecting a few of the best, in striking contrasting colours. She had a slender figure to drape these rough "Khaddhars".

I owe Alfreda a deep depth of gratitude. I had married young. She sensed it would be good for me to take to the family profession of teaching and encouraged me to do so. She was happy when I entered the G. T. C and was later seconded to the Department of Education as an In Service Advisor for English first in Gampaha and later in the Colombo Education Region. In this capacity I was able to use much of her poetry and prose effectively with teachers and students. Some of her poems have been published in the government texts prescribed for schools. She loved to hear me report to her how at a school concert her poem "The Scarecrow" caused much fun. "He looked so authentic "Standing there in the sun and rain". Thurstan College where my husband was Principal, was the venue for the contests, poetry prose and oratory for some years.

Her poem, The challenging, makes one sad, it tells of her loneliness in that rambling house in Pagoda. In her poem, "Sea morning", published in the Anthology for Students, the scene depicted engulfs one. She used to be invited to schools to talk to teachers on how poetry should be taught. Alfreda had such a natural gift for words.

Alfreda loved privacy, and used to tell me, "You have been a teacher most of your life and love sounds and company but I am a very private person. Perhaps this need arose at the times she was involved with her work and had to meet deadlines, which she never failed to keep. However she did enjoy social gatherings to which Kingsley and she were often invited to and enjoyed programmes organised by the British Council. Last year, Alfreda was felicitated along with Lalitha Withanachi another well known writer, at a ceremony held for them.

Christmas parties at their home in Chandraleka Mawatha were great occasions. The brothers had to be on their best behaviour. Alfreda was a gracious hostess.

I shall always remember the day Alfreda and Kingsley moved to Kotte from Chandraleka Mawatha. It was an ideal place to retire into. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary there in 1993. Shyami was very much in the forefront to assist in all the arrangements at parties held there. Sometimes Alfreda would invite my sister and me to lunch with her. We used to spend hilarious moments. Alfreda loved fun. She had a wonderful memory, people, places, events came alive. We did not feel time pass.

I remember once, she had been invited to write a review for a play staged by an International School at the Lionel Wendt theatre. She invited me to go along with her and had made arrangements. "Let the boys be together" she said "till we come", and off we went giggling like schoolgirls. The boys were Kingsley and my husband Gune. They were still chatting when we came back and waiting to have dinner with us.

In 1994 sorrow struck unrelentlessly, almost unbelievably when both Kingsley and my husband Gune passed away on the same day. They had been ailing for some time. Was it a quirk of fate? I am kept wondering! Shyami and Mohan cushioned her grief and were a staunch source of comfort as were Anushka and Manjiv.

Alfreda will always be remembered for her verse, prose and elegance, and as one of Sri Lanka’s premier poets and much loved radio personalities. In 1993 she was the winner of the Zonta award for her contribution to fine arts in Sri Lanka. Her colleagues showered tributes. She was presented with an award by Triton College School of Arts and Sciences USA for her performance. She won many other awards too. She had travelled widely and won International acclaim.

Some years back in October first 1983 she had written an article which appeared in the Daily News, the headline read, "Grandma was an extraordinary woman". It was a tribute Alfreda had paid her, in which she extolled grandma’s many virtues her courage, sense of leadership and commitment. She also writes that in recognition of grandma’s services her children were educated free in leading schools in Colombo.

Sometime later appeared an article, "A Royal Thomian Great" which referred to Uncle Harry - H. J. Wijesinghe, grandma’s third son. He had studied at Royal College, (then known as Colombo Academy) taught at both S. Thomas’ and Royal College Records state he became the first Ceylonese acting Principal of Royal retired - 1938 - 1939.

They certainly had influenced her life and inspired her to the heights she reached, grandma and HJ.

Upto the last few months of her life, though failing in health, her spirits were buoyant, with Shyami and Anushka frequently around. The birth of a baby daughter to Anushka was a very happy event in her life and Alfreda’s joy knew no bounds. She had become a Great-Grandmother. She surely would have felt that she had lived her life to the fullest.

So often of a day I have some news to pass on to my sister and rush to call her, then turn away. I am then reminded of some lines in Arunatilleke’s tribute to her.

"Times winged Chariot" Alfreda of Kotte,

"Death does not postpone things the way we do,

Thinking time will wait on us again,

So putting off ..."

Nostalgic memories come to my mind.

On, August 5 Alfreda passed away peacefully and was accorded a private funeral at Christ Church, Kotte according to her wishes. At the grave side during the final moments Anushka sang "Amazing Grace", in her hauntingly beautiful voice which broke the silence around - a fitting tribute to a much loved grandmother. Shyami stood by gently wiping away her tears. She brother loss with great courage.

On October, 18 a memorial service was held, where Dr. Narme Wickremesinghe, who had known her all his life, paid the most glowing tributes to Alfreda, on her life and work.

My sister was an extraordinary woman

Irene Gunasekera,

Etul Kotte.


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