We are made of you | Daily News
Tribute to Padma Edirisinghe:

We are made of you

A land-line phone number that rings on and on with no one to pick it up. A mobile phone that tells me ‘the number you dialed is not in use’. A house with its doors and windows tightly shut. A vague rumour that you are no longer living in Sri Jayawardenepura, Kotte. Where are you? How could I find you? I searched so hard ever since last September, wanting to place my new novel in your hands, to go down on my knees and worship you, to show you the first page of my book in which I thank you, shower you with gratitude for moulding me into the writer I am today…

I never got the chance to do so. When I read the WhatsApp message telling me you have moved onto another world – a better world no doubt, my eyes misted with tears, a dark cloud shrouded my heart...and yet I tossed my head back and smiled. Defiantly.

You wouldn’t have wanted me to cry. After all that was one of the first lessons you taught me. Be brave! You can do anything if you make up your mind to do so.

I remember meeting you shortly after your seventy-eighth birthday. You told me then that an astrologer who looked at your horoscope said he can’t see anything beyond your seventy-eighth birthday. You laughed, kept your hand on my arm and said, “My future is blank after my 79th birthday. That could mean only one thing. I would die on my next birthday.”

Remarkable resilience

But you didn’t die at 79. You defied the astrologer in the same way you defied the villagers who came to the funeral of your sister when you were young and lamented that the fair one had died when it should have been you, the dark one who should be lying in that coffin.

With remarkable resilience, Aunty Padma Edirisinghe (she forbade me to call her ‘Ma’am’ on my first meeting with her) weathered all the storms that lay on her path. A graduate of the University of Peradeniya her career that began as a teacher, culminated when she became the Director, Colleges of Education. She was the pioneer of the Creative writing project for children and the All Island Teacher Writers Club. She has written numerous articles for Sinhala and English newspapers, was the editor of the Royal Asiatic Journal and won three state awards as well as the Presidential Award for the best translation for her translation of Prof. A. V Suraweera’s ‘Heimmaruwa’.

Her impact on the younger generation of writers was invaluable. For those of us who made that special magical connection with her, she became a lovable, kind aunt who was always there to encourage us, steer us in new directions, praise our efforts. It was Aunty Padma Edirisinghe who gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received as a writer. Once when I confessed to her that an article I wrote on such and such a topic turned out to be rather boring, she said, “I don’t believe you. You can’t write anything that’s boring even if you wanted to.” This was lavish praise from a veteran journalist whose own writing surpassed the work of most others of our era.

Avid storyteller

An avid storyteller, time used to fly whenever I was in her presence. On one dark night she spent with us in a planter’s bungalow in Thalawakelle she recalled travelling in an empty railway compartment in the night when she suddenly saw a ‘saravita’ man seated in the adjoining seat. When she looked again he had vanished. In the morning when we gathered at the dining table for breakfast having spent a sleepless night recalling her story she informed us in a matter-of-fact voice that she had found the French windows in her room which she had closed before she went to sleep, wide open in the middle of the night. It was clear she saw a story in that mysterious incident, in the same way she saw the story of our last queen, Queen Rengammal who as she phrased it “hangs in a gilt-framed glass case adjacent to a drawing of the last king of Lanka...” She believed every human owns a story. “At least the story of his or her life. It could be an interesting story or a dull one, a happy story or a sad one or a mix of both elements. Even each house or a building for that matter has its own story and of course each village, town, city and country...”

Those of us who loved to read her columns in the Sunday Observer or the Daily News would know that she had a keen eye for social injustice, as well as an unforgettable sense of humour. In one article she criticized the health service of our country in her unique sarcastic style. In her eyes the doctors today, when we consult them in private hospitals are so efficient they spend very little time with the patient. They diagnosed the patient, she said, from the sound of the patient’s footsteps as he or she walked to the doctor’s office.

Among the many subjects we discussed whenever we met ranging from history to holidays abroad to contemporary Sinhala and English literature a topic that occurred often was death. As she later recorded in her autobiography, ‘Looking Back and Beyond’ she believed the world will go on whether we are in it or not. “Generations succeeding the previous. The old gradually fading out and completely getting effaced from the earth’s surface. No complaints. Who wants to live forever? Does anybody wish for an immortality pill? Not likely...but will those who have roamed this earth disappear completely?”, she asked. And gave the answer by quoting from the Bhagavat Gita. An apt quote to end this tribute to a writer whose impact on the craft of writing for the past six decades of our country is immeasurable.

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all those kings. Nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”

Dear Aunty Padma, until we meet again, I bow my head to you with reverence. You were so great a writer you made others feel great too. You made us who we are today.


 

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