Lorna Wright

"Why can’t we improve the lives of our underprivileged woman? Tell me, what on earth are we doing while so many are suffering"

This and other questions, comments and notes of despair were invariably what followed Lorna’s hello in her telephone calls to me. I always meant to phone when we had not contacted each other for a week or so, but she invariably beat me to it.

I was not a friend of hers from long ago. She got in touch with me over writing about some illegal refugees who had been stranded mid-sea and whose wives had rushed to her for help. This was about seven years ago. She invited me over for high tea and again for dinner and ever since, has kept in touch with me. Conversations were always about the underprivileged and the duty of the better-off to help them improve their condition. She was particularly concerned about women and their hard lives; next about kids living in slum areas who were vulnerable to dropping out of school, and taking to drugs and vice.

And the voice of Lorna Wright is stilled; the hand of Lorna Wright will do no more social service; the concern of Lorna Wright for the underprivileged is ended. I will get no calls from her and I will not be called upon to write about some concern of hers or just to give her a listening ear. I will not be able to cheer her up with a shared joke, sometimes admittedly risqué. She died on Wednesday after a brief stay at Navaloka Hospital due to a recurrence of her heart condition.

She had been in hospital about a month ago. When she told me this, very casually, after her return home, I asked her why she had not phoned me from hospital, "At least I would have visited you and told you a joke to see you smile." "No girl, I am alright and anyway old and now susceptible to illness. But what about our suffering mothers, how do these housewives manage the cost of living?" And there she digressed, or rather started on HER topic of conversation.

This time her faithful driver Naufer phoned me to say she was admitted to the nursing home. I went that very evening and found her in the cardiac intensive care unit. She did not want to speak much and I did not want to stay long since visitors were not what she needed at that moment. I blew her a kiss and promised to visit her once she was shifted to a room. I could not do so. Her driver it was that conveyed the message she had died.

Lorna was a sincere, concerned, practical and completely involved person trying to improve the condition of the poor city dweller and disadvantaged villager. Her most touted remedies were kola kenda, hathmalu, reusing squeezed-out coconut, cooking in clay chatties; building kitchens and toilets in every home, however poor; constructing playgrounds in heavy housed areas, giving thatvaya to casual labour through uniforms and helmets and obtaining foreign employment for men with adequate salary and assured insurance. Consider these and realize for yourself how practical she was and if resorted to, how improved the lives of many would be. She was not into major improvements like weaning men from heavy drinking or even educating the girl child. She wanted to improve basic living conditions and then the larger improvements would follow.

Lorna got into social service very early on as a top grade Civil Servant’s wife. She could have enjoyed a sweet social life of partying and frivolity. Maybe she did, or she had to being so very beautiful and vibrant. But hers was a nature of helping others, of doing, of organizing. One great testimony to this ability was the Housewives’ Association she started long ago (nearly 60 years?). Another was her pioneering the housing scheme method of owning houses which was inaugurated with her idea for the Watapuluwa, Kandy housing project for government servants, way back in the early 1950s. At least they recognized her and named a road leading to the scheme – the Lorna Wright Road.

She was recently felicitated by the Housewives’ Association. The Australian Embassy honoured her as a distinguished citizen of that country, with a celebration in Colombo about two years ago.

They say that ‘the old order changeth yielding place to the new.’ In this case there will be a huge chasm between Lorna and the new generation. Who will ever be so concerned and single minded of purpose in helping the poor and disadvantaged?

I always say that instead of a death being mourned we should celebrate the life led. In Lorna’s case it is both. We celebrate her life, her beauty, her wit, her joy in life, her verve, and of course all she did for thousands, but we mourn her death too – severely. Her family, relatives and friends will miss her. Sri Lanka is all the poorer with her passing away. Lorna Wright is irreplaceable.

Nanda P Wanasundera


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