Sajitha Prematunge, in Island. 4 February 2019, with Pics by Jude Denzil Pathiraja and title reading “Swarnamali recounts reading solidarity message at first Independence commemoration”
The day was February 4, 1949, the first commemoration of Independence at the Torrington Square. With synchronised grace, four athletes – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher – handed over scrolls of solidarity from the four corners of Ceylon to four charming and self-conscious young ladies. Swarnamali Amarasuriya, Sirimani Ramachandran, Ayesha Zally and Phyllis de Kretser read those messages in their respective languages and handed them over to Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake to be enshrined with the foundation stone.
Swarnamali Salgado, nee Amarasuriya is the only surviving member of the quartet. Sirimani Ramachandran, Ayesha Zally and Phyllis de Kretser were university girls. The leftist ideals of Sinhala speaking university girls, one of whom would have been entrusted with the task of reading the Sinhala message, prevented such a girl from playing any part in the first Independence Day commemoration.
The authorities had to come up with a replacement in a hurry and Visakha Vidyalaya was the go-to college for gracious young ladies. The principle was promptly informed of the need and teachers put together 10 presentable girls. Then Minister of Finance, J.R. Jayewardene and Minister of Food, Co-operatives and Home Affairs, Abeyratne Ratnayaka, entrusted the task of picking the girl, heard the girls read the impromptu message aloud.
Such were the serendipitous circumstances that lead to Swarnamali becoming the youngest, at 16, to deliver the first Independence Day message. Of course, they were oblivious to her family background when they made the decision. The two ministers picked Swarnamali for her eloquence.
Swarnamali’s father, Thomas Amarasuriya, initially from Unawatuna, Galle, was a planter and politician. He was a member of the State Council and President of the Senate of then Ceylon. H. W. Amarasuriya, politician, educationist and philanthropist, who was also a member of the Ceylon State council and the Minister for Trade and Commerce was her uncle. Her mother Lucile, who passed on some 25 years ago, was a philanthropist in her own right and helped many temples during her active years.
Swarnamali and the other three girls were allowed their choice of attire for the occasion. The burgher girl wore a dress and the Muslim girl a full skirted Muslim garb. At 16, Swarnamali had never worn a saree. “Besides it wouldn’t have been right to wear a saree since the Tamil girl also wore a saree,” said the now 86-year-old Swarnamali. Her young age at the time prevented her from wearing a Kandyan. She finally decided on the half saree.
“Athlete Oscar Wijesinghe handed me the message,” said Swarnamali. The scrolls were brought in from the four corners of Ceylon. The Sinhala one from Dondra via Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Panadura, Dehiwala, Wellawatta and Pamankada, the Tamil one from Point Pedro, through Jaffna, Vavuniya, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Kegalle and Kelaniya. The Arabic message came from Batticaloa through the Uva plantations and Krillapone. The English one started from Wellawatta.
Swarnamali read, in her impeccable English, a translation of the Sinhala message she delivered on that historic day, “Rejoice, for we conquer!
We have come from the four corners of Lanka, from Point Pedro, the Northern most, Batticaloa, the eastern most, Devundara, the Southernmost and Colombo the Western most cities.
“In our journey whither to the Independence Memorial, our feet had touched every province, in the land and the chief towns therein.
“We recall the glories of our ancient civilizations as we pass through Anuradhapura. The trials and difficulties of the living present impressed themselves on our minds as we approached the capital city of Colombo.
“A vision of the future that is to be, appeared before us as we thought of the great irrigation works such as Gal Oya, now under construction.
“We the youth of this country drawn from all races, classes and creeds, who have travelled night and day through jungle and town, over hill and dale, seeking you, the leader of our nation, offer a promise of sacrifice, and cooperation in the common task of rebuilding our nation.
“On this historic day, when we commemorate the first anniversary of a Lanka, free once again after 133 years of subjection, at this hallowed spot, where the first free parliament of the people assembled, we pledge ourselves as citizens of one nation to combat and defeat the evils that we have inherited from the recent past, so that we too may say, ‘Rejoice, for we conquer!’”
“I was only 16 at the time I delivered this message,” said Swarnamali Salgado. She has come a long way from that demure figure that walked down the Independence Square exactly 70 years ago. She has spent her 67 years in Panadura, for which she left her childhood home on Kinsey Road after her marriage, with an illustrious philanthropic occupation. When her children grew up, it was only natural for Swarnamali to get into charity work. Taking after her mother and uncle and with the support of her husband who was a philanthropist in his own right,Swarnamali, who engaged in many charitable activities from school days, worked for Sumithrayo for 20 years voluntarily.
“I remember how I and other fellow Visakhians stood for hours in Fort making till collections for one charitable event or another,” Swarnamali fondly reminisced.
She was the founding President of the Senior Citizens Association of Panadura and held the position for six years before giving it up to care for her ailing husband. She is currently the president of the Child Welfare and Social Services League, Panadura, an organization which has been in existence for some 80 years, responsible for the management of a children’s home for 25 girls.
Her husband Raja Salgado, at 94 still bears vestiges of what was once a handsome face. Married when she was 18 and he 25, they are the proud parents of three children, a daughter and two sons, who have given them many grand and great grandchildren. Her oldest great grandson is 13 and youngest great granddaughter is three. Her family tree is 25 strong. “Few people get to see their great grandchildren. I count myself lucky,” said this grande dame who manages commendably her husband’s ancestral home, a grand old thing that is over a 100 years old.