Her equanimity was remarkable

Mrs. Pearlie Gunawardena – All in the Family


Not long after her schooling days, Dona Swarnapali Senanayaka (‘Pearlie Akka’ to us) was, in the customary way, given in marriage to D A W (Danister) Gunawardena who was a kind of uncle to us. He was of Mother’s generation and some in the two families were close friends. That dual status confused Danny Aiyya, as we insisted on calling him, he being married to our Akka, for a year or two before he accepted our stubbornness. Age-wise, ‘we’ were yet to hit double figures.

He never gave up his patriarchal view of ‘the best of possible worlds’. Many years later, speaking for the family at the marriage of a junior cousin of ours, Danny Aiyya delivered an eloquent account of what her duties as wife would be. The women were both horrified and amused at his aadi-kaaley notions, but realized that, thanks also to Pearlie Akka’s equanimity, they were very real to him. That is not a matter for surprise; his schooling at S. Thomas’ in the late 1920s would have ensured that even if he had not been close to Dudley & Robert Senanayake they were together in their cricket team (which in those Jubilee years encountered a stronger team from Royal); those associations continued till Dudley passed away.

There was quite a gap in years between even Pearlie Akka and us. We loved to run across /escape to her place from grandmother’s at meal times, (and ‘meal times’ could occur for us at any time of day), to be fed mouthfuls of sweetmeats and /or buth by her and sometimes by her kid sister, Laki Akka, the highly gifted family maverick, both makers of the most delicious buth-kata we knew. I have since been told of her expertise in making jams, chutneys and the like from the garden produce but have no memory of that (little boys simply like to eat). I also served as her page boy. I had all my teeth at the time and the flower girls, Kaushalya Hewavitharana and Damayanthi Seneviratne, both nieces from her father’s side, had begun shedding their milk-teeth. How much older Pearlie Akka was may be gauged from that. Years later our younger son and our daughter served at her daughter’s wedding.

In primary school days Pearlie Akka had (I almost wrote ‘grabbed’) me for the holidays at their place in Baddegama (Danny Aiyya’s turf near the sandara wala, home to a legendary eel who swam in that pool wearing a golden ring) and by the Tarzan Cinema in Kegalle.

In our early years my siblings and I used to spend much of our holidays at Grandmother’s in Mattumagala. It was a kind of family fiefdom with the maha gedera (yet standing as was though in the hands of a stranger) at its apex, more or less surrounded, in an extended way, by the houses and land holdings of some of her children. Pearlie Akka’s mother’s place was right opposite, the isseraha gedera, on what is now known as Gunasekera Mavatha after our youngest maama, Gilbert, who served for some 25 years as Chairman of the Kanuvana Village Committee that then covered most of the Jaela and Wattala electorates and substantial portions of Mahara and Kelaniya as well: he was also the first Chairman of the Kandana Town Council. Isseraha gedera extended at the back to the Gaja Mavatha down which elephants were said to have gone on the way to Muturajawela to transport the paddy where, at that point, lay many of the family fields. The older sister’s was palleha gedera at the bottom of which was the naana linda, sans any sort of protection by a wall, surrounded by fruit trees and a single mighty goraka tree at which we all bathed. Further along was Dombagahawatta the home of a senior mama and in between mostly coconut land assigned to grandfather’s sons. The temple was off the maha gedera at one end of the village. Considerable portions of the village have now been scooped up by the UDA for super highways and tracks for containers.

Pearlie Akka’s mother, our senior mahamma, was present at the birth of our sisters, stayed through for three weeks (her rule) till they were ready to be taken out to the garden so the early morning sun could have a look at them. (She had missed my birth by an hour or so; as the story went Richard Tauber had been singing that night at the GOH and I had been in a hurry to give ear to him. It was aluth avurudu anyway and she would have been busy).

In later life Pearlie Akka was perhaps closer to her relatives from her father’s side. Don John Peter Rajapaksa Senanayaka, ‘Peter Aiyya’ to our mother, was from Paththanduvana near Minuwangoda. He had his coconut and paddy, and probably, as I recall, some rubber. His one sister was given in marriage to a Jayakody from Balagalla, had several daughters and one son, Percy, who married one of the two daughters of ‘Baendiyamulla Seeya’, D D Karunaratne, the first MP for Gampaha. His residence, ‘Agra’, covered a full acre, was acquired to house the newly established Kachcheri for Gampaha and its ‘furniture & fittings’ looted by successive Chief Ministers. A lovely man (and, a hundred years ago, one of the most wealthy in the country) he knew nothing about ‘politics’. When he died, the LSSP and the BLP decided to ‘come together’ but never did – that ‘battle’ continued into the 1960s. Percy Aiyya’s sister-in-law married Bertie (A E C de S) Gunasekera, Director of Irrigation, a colourful person whom I came to know well. One of Peter Mahappa’s nieces married Uncle Bertie’s brother and their son married into grandmother’s Waragoda family: Baendiyamulle Seeya was grandfather’s first cousin and he had long desired an alliance of that kind with grandmother’s people.

Pearlie Akka’s other cousins too, as it’s said, married into good families. One married Albert Godamune, the Kandyan nationalist. He had three children, Upali, a most modest and honourable man, Lakshmi, who married a niece of Dr. N M Perera, and Lalith. Another married (am surmising now) Neil Hewavitharane, one, H E Seneviratne, CCS, who was the Post Master General when I first knew of him. Leela was said to have been forced into marriage with somebody she didn’t favour (a nephew perhaps of Baendiyamulle Seeya), and one, I think the youngest, married a Ratnatunge, am not sure which. Perhaps it was P U Ratnatunge, Surveyor General; if so, I knew his brothers – Dalke, Chartered engineer in civil, mechanical, aeronautical engineering and a delightful eccentric; R T, once Settlement Officer (a job foisted on me many years later) and Additional Secretary/ Agriculture & Food (when I worked closely with him), and Chula, the youngest, who was Chief Engineer at the Milk Board.

Pearlie Akka’s own siblings were differently endowed. Brother Lakshman took to Banking, was on the board of the Eastern Bank through its post-colonial phase. Laki Akka, effervescent as ever, continues to light fireworks, surrounded by her family down in New Zealand: I can picture her doing the Hakka!

The times they are a-changing’. As the song goes, the changes have to do with world events such as wars or changes in social phenomena.

Such changes passed our cousin by. She was a housewife first and last. She supported her husband through his career as it blossomed in the Department of Cooperative Development. Their children took up professions that were not traceable to either, Priyangani to become an eye surgeon, Gupta an IT professional who had the distinction of designing and executing the first professional course of instruction on computers here. She under-wrote all their endeavours. Priyangani has done likewise while pursuing her professional career.

Priyangani’s husband, Lalantha Amerasinghe, started off as an orthopaedic surgeon, but his experience in tending to the war wounded moved him on to burns/plastic surgery. His peers regard him as a kind of vishvakarma, his patients, as some kind of bodhisatva. (I know of no bodhisatva who gave what leisure hours he had to promoting scrabble and bridge). Pearlie Akka was fortunate also that in her last years her younger grandson, Indunil, remained within call. Asanka, the elder, was a very busy young man what with his studies in engineering, his chess (played at National level) and his bridge and scrabble (played at the higher International level). All I’ve sensed of the scrabble as played by both father and son is that it’s not limited to any English words I’ve come across in the English literature we read from the times of Chaucer to Seamus Heany.

I doubt that Pearlie Akka was much given to religious ceremony or to ritual of any kind. Her equanimity was remarkable and it comes as no surprise that Danny Aiyya’s immediate relatives, primarily the Lecamwasam’s, came in time to turn to her for comfort. A sweet smile hovered behind her eyes at all times. She was a very special person indeed.

by Gamini Seneviratne


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