Suvendrini Kanagasabai Perera, in Island, 26 December 2018, where the title reads “In the thick of it: Anne Abayasekara, Unfaltering Witness. Review of book – ‘Telling It Like It Is’ … emphasis via highlights below being the work of The Editor, Thuppahi
Reflecting on her life at an address to the Rotary Club in 2012, Anne Abayasekara made a telling comparison between the life of the creative writer and what she described as her own “enduring love affair with journalism”: “The distinctive feature about journalism … is that in writing for newspapers, you don’t sit in solitude, but have to be out on the street, in the thick of people and events.”
Anne Abayasekara spent over 65 years in the thick of it, thoroughly enmeshed in a world she relished and clearly loved, but nonetheless viewed with great clarity. Her extraordinary career spans Independence in 1948 (she attended the festivities as a young reporter for the fashion pages), the three grim decades of the war and the unpromising peace that has succeeded it. Through it all, she held up a mirror to the society she loved, bearing witness to its atrocities and most egregious failures, as to its small acts of grace and moments of beauty. This carefully distilled selection of her writings provides an important snapshot of this period. At the same time, emerging from its pages is a picture of the writer herself: a spirited, large-hearted, deeply humane woman, characterised, above all, by a rare, sustained courage.
This quality is best exemplified in the piece that gives the collection its title: “Telling it like it is”, the first of two newspaper articles to be published about the events of what we now call Black July. During these weeks of horrific attacks on Tamil citizens in July 1983 Anne Abayasekara’s editor forbade her “to write a word about it” in her weekly column. Finally, she could no longer endure the media blackout:
As a human being who was simply appalled by the unjustified violence against ordinary, peaceful, unarmed Tamil citizens of this country, I was dying to write something. … I wrote a piece titled “TELLING IT LIKE IT IS” and sent it to the now long defunct paper called The Sun. The piece was published, along with another by Professor Palihawadana, “a lone Buddhist voice raised splendidly” amidst the deafening silence.
As on so many others, July 1983 left an indelible mark on Anne Abayasekara. A quarter century later, in 2008, she wrote: “What happened in that week of July 25 years ago is seared into my memory. The horror of it is unforgettable. The rubble that lined Galle Road in Wellawatte, all that remained of Tamil owned shops … made it seem as if an aerial bombardment must have caused such destruction… [B]rutal murders were also a big part of the scenario.”
In this 2008 piece, Anne Abayasekara publicly reveals some details of her personal experiences during Black July, and gives a day-by-day account of living through those weeks when the terror inflicted on Tamils on the streets was compounded by official denials and state complicity. The Abayasekaras provided refuge for a number of neighbours, friends and acquaintances in danger, secretly housing them upstairs:
“Looking back, I wonder how we fed everybody. We sent meals upstairs. The Tamil boutique from which we had always bought our foodstuffs was no more, of course. There was a Sinhala-owned place nearby …The mudalali there may have heard on the grapevine that we had unexpected guests, for he sent word to my husband that he could supply us with rice, coconuts, dhal, etc., and we gratefully accepted his kind offer.”
The piece offers a rare glimpse of daily life at a time of crisis, the pervasive fear and violence and the unwritten acts of bravery undertaken by ordinary citizens. While reading this account, I unexpectedly came across a reference to members of my own family: following the burning down of their own house at Narahenpita, my uncle and aunt, their daughter and her own two small daughters, together with their maid, were driven to the seeming safety of another uncle’s house in Mount Lavinia by Anne Abayaskara and her husband. Little did any of them know at the time that this house too would be attacked that same night. The houses of both my uncles were burned down in different parts of Colombo on that night. Neither of them would ever return to their homes. My cousin and her daughters were eventually evacuated to Jaffna by helicopter and now live in Melbourne.
This small personal reference brought home to me that the story of Black July is, in a sense, the story of all our lives. By “the story of all our lives” I do not mean only the larger national narrative, in which of course 1983 marks a fatal turning point; I mean also in the lives of all of us who thought of Colombo as a home; who inhabited its streets with a sense of familiarity, if not always belonging; and who remain intimately connected to it by a web of memories, emotions and associations.
A Life in Place
These are the readers to whom Anne Abayasekara’s writings speak in deeply immediate ways throughout the collection, invoking a fully realised sense of the place, both at its worst and best:
LISTEN-go out to Dehiwala next Sunday morning with your husband (leave the children with your mother or sister). Leave before the sun rises and walk down Karagampitiya Road until you come to the fields. You’ll hardly believe that you are not a hundred miles away from Colombo as you drink in the beauty of the green paddy fields and the scent of the wild flowers … You might take the Molpe ferry and cross the Bolgoda Lake. There are many clean boutiques on the wayside where for a few cents you could have hot hoppers and or string-hoppers.
Written in 1947 and titled “Calling All Tired Housewives,” the piece is highly dated, and yet in other ways timeless in the poetry of the names and the loving evocation of the landscape. Such passages offer glimpses of a life rooted in southern Lanka, from the coconut estate at Madampe where the author grew up, to her school days at Ladies College (following a slump in the coconut market during the Great Depression, the school made her a free scholar) and an idyllic honeymoon spent roaming the countryside around Haputale, Diyatalawa and Tissamaharama and Nuwara Eliya on foot and by bus and train. It is a story that seems to burst out of the limits of a conventional middle-class upbringing, revealing a rich and multi-dimensioned life.
Telling it like it is was compiled by Anne Abayasekara’s seven children as a lasting collective tribute, with each sibling playing a designated role in bringing the book into being. The book is a testament to their mother’s capacious life in all its dimensions: homemaker, writer, counsellor, woman of faith, feminist, citizen. Her sense of responsibility to the nation runs all through Telling it like it is, from her heady sense of possibility in her early pieces on Independence Day to her calls for magnanimity and reconciliation after the war ended. To read Telling it like it is in the weeks following the latest constitutional crisis, with two rival prime ministers claiming power, duplicate ministries in operation, and scenes of MPs throwing punches and hurling chilli powder at one another in parliament, is to contemplate once again another kind of nation that might have emerged from those early days of Independence.
Anne Abayasekara brings before us, fleetingly, the possibilities of that other unrealised country, as she steadfastly holds the present to account. I can think of no other figure quite like her in Lankan history. In all her generous humanity, her steadfast call for an ethical society, she stands as a courageous, unflinching and necessary witness to her times. If “national champion” could be anything other than a hollow title, Anne Abayasekara would be my nomination.
Suvendrini Kanagasabai Perera is John Curtin Distinguished Professor and Research Professor of Cultural Studies at Curtin University, Australia. She was educated at Anne Abayasekara’s much loved old school, Ladies College, Colombo, and at the University of Sri Lanka, Kelaniya and Columbia University, New York.