Carol Aloysius, courtesy of the Sunday Observer 26 June 2016, where the title is “My Parents’ Genes shaped My Life”
One of Deloraine Brohier’s most vivid and fearful memories was living in snake infested circuit bungalows- the transit homes for the wandering Brohier family headed by Ceylon’s first Ceylonese Surveyor. “My father, Dr R.L Brohier joined the exclusively British run Survey Department in 1910 and retired in 1949. The youngest in a family of three, I spent my early childhood travelling with my parents to wherever my father was sent. My first memory is Ratnapura when I was about five. Like all the circuit bungalows we lived in, it was beautifully landscaped and overlooking the Kalu Ganga. Unfortunately, it was snake infested”, she recalls, still shuddering at the memory. One encounter in particular stands out, if only because it was so terrifying. ” I was just four, and liked rolling on the carpet. One day, I sat on what looked like a big bump under the carpet. Thinking it was a cushion, I began riding on top of it like an imaginary car. Then, my father noticed the bump moving. After instructing that I be carried away without frightening me, he hit it hard with a club. And a huge snake slithered away!”
My encounter with Deloraine in her home, at Number 11, Asoka Gardens Bambalapitiya, recently, was like re connecting with an old family friend. A former teacher at my school, Methodist College , Kollupitiya, she was a regular visitor to my home, having forged a close bond with my mother, Muriel Aiyadurai who was also on the MC staff, and who Deloraine regarded as her ‘confidante and mentor.’
Her immaculate attire with matching jewellery and shoes, never failed to impress me. So did her ready wit and endless store of memories of her fascinating childhood years with her parents.
Now, five decades on, those traits remain unchanged. At 89, the soon to be nonagenarian’s only concession to those passing years is that she is more frail and less brisk in her movements. “Put it down to my illness and the 20 odd tablets I have to take for my angina”, she tells me, as I sit on an antique chair, that clearly belongs to her past. Despite the years, her good looks which enticed so many young males since she was fifteen, have managed to weather the ageing storms. The red long sleeved blouse worn over dark pants with matching earrings reveals her continuing passion for elegant dressing.
Her ancestral house is 150 years old. It stands cheek by jowl with the railway line and the sea just pebbles away.
The gentle rhythm of the sea and the shrill blast of the train’s whistle are the first and last sounds that put her to sleep and wakes her up. The collection of pebbles, drift wood and other treasures of the sea strewn on a table in her outer verandah are from different parts of the island. “The sea has a special fascination for me since I’ve lived in its shadow for so long,” she confesses.
The newly tiled floor and recently painted walls are constantly sprayed by salty sea breeze the ancient pillars and rusted door knobs are also pillars encrusted by old salt. No amount of dusting by her helper Meena for the past sixteen years, and her Man Friday Lal ,has been able to remove this alien intruder.
Her sitting room walls are lined with blue ceramic plates.
The cupboard containing books collected by her father, although still full is minus some of the rare maps he collected, ” I have gifted them to the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology in memory of my father. The rest, including a set of rare one inch scale maps with linen backing will be gifted to the same Institute where I have set up a Trust, when I am no more”, she says in a matter of fact manner.”
It was at Methodist College, Kollupitiya, which she joined as a student in the middle school, that the young teenager came into her own. Encouraged by a “wonderful principal, Mrs Gladys Loos” she recalls becoming head prefect and member of the Debating Society, among other achievements. “We had a mixed school population, Burghers, Sinhalese, Tamils, Malays, and Sindis. So we learned the basic lessons of living in a muti racial , muti religious society, harmoniously. As our study load was comparatively less then, we could engage in several extra curricular activities,” she said.
The same relaxed and peaceful atmosphere prevailed at the University Arts Faculty where she pursued a degree in History and Economics. “Ragging of new students was mild. It was also the first time I met non English speaking students from remote areas with whom we got on very well”, she recalls.
However, getting employment for newly passed out female graduates was tough , she recalls. “We had limited scope for jobs in that era, as most top slots were still jealously guarded male bastions. So our options were either teaching or nursing.”
Deloraine’s choice was teaching. No sooner she finished her degree, she joined the staff of Methodist College.
From teaching, to broadcasting, Deloraine joined the School Services Unit Radio Ceylon. There she interviewed local and international VIPs such as, Indira Gandhi and Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the program, Spoken Word.
Her interview with the latter was extraordinary, to put it mildly, and still makes her blush.
In her early twenties, in the full bloom of youth, the slender beauty in short dress and high heels prompted the royal visitor, looking down from the Queens Pavilion balcony, after visiting the Dalada Temple, to invite Deloraine to his private study, where he asked her to sit on his knee and interview him. Although equally taken up with his good looks ( ” he was the most handsome man I had ever met” she confessed ), she refused and fired away her questions standing.!.
Orang Nassau Award
Of her interview with Indira Gandhi, she says, “She portrayed a very humane person with a deep love for her fellow citizens.” Deloraine admits being so taken up by Gandhi’s hair style which had a white flyaway streak in front, that in the 1990s she adopted the same style and wears it to this day.
The drone of a plane flying low in the skies, conjures vivid memories of the Second World War and the constant air raids . “Our house in Kollupitiya had a large garden and just before the war, my father built an air raid shelter in it , stacking it with a lot of hard to come by goodies. When there was an air raid, we would run into the shelter.Soon afterwards, my sister, a medical student would rush to help the injured in the general hospital”.
The proudest moment for Deloraine was receiving the Orang Nassau Award in 2002 from the Queen of Holland. “My father had got the same award in 1972 in recognition of his contribution to archaeology. Mine was a notch higher than my father’s . What was unique was that it was the first time that two members of the same family were given this award.”, she said, showing us the glass framed award on her table.
Although ridden with illness and angina, Deloraine is determined to keep writing and publishing her own books as , “Writing is in my blood.” Her favourite is ‘ Sugar & Spice’ dedicated to her grandmother Ada de la Harpe , a “Super cook.. In those days, the housewife provided the family with excellent traditional fare; whether savouries , sweetmeats or richly garnished dishes”, she recalls.
Values then and now
What saddens this child of the 20th century, still able to enjoy the fruits of her work in the 21st century, are the changing values of modern society.
“We had no radios or television sets. So, books were our precious companions. Reading a book puts me to sleep better than a cup of coffee!,” she confesses.
She is also distressed that the close parent -child relationships she and others in the century gone by enjoyed were now strained, with both parents having little time to bond with their children. ” However busy my father was, he would lay aside his work if I wanted to show him some of my own creations like a poem or short story I was composing,”, she recalls.
“He would immediately push aside his own writing and have me read out what I had written, gently suggesting alterations and explaining why he made them. My mother, handed to me advice on cooking and personal matters that most daughters share with their mothers. It was because of them that I have been able to adjust and adapt to the changes the 21st century has brought”.
What stands out most in her collection of memories in the past 90 years? Which of those are her most satisfying? I ask as my final question.
” One is, when I was made the first woman President of the Dutch Burgher Union in 2002 when they celebrated the centenary after the first Dutch stepped on Lankan shores. It was a huge surprise as the previous presidents had all been eminent persons such as Dr R.L Spittle. The second was given the Orang Nassau award by Queen Beatrix.”.
Grateful she has been able to harness the benefits of both worlds , she quotes Mother Teresa, ” God’s gift to you is life. What you do with it is your gift to God”.