A tribute to my parents | Daily News

A tribute to my parents

I wrote last week about my parents, having been roused by my discussion with Dharmasiri Peiris to record their signal achievements over the years. I had a little bit to say about both of them, and today too I will look at different facets of both their characters.

Last week I wrote about my father’s distinction in the world of work, as a lawyer, then as Secretary General of Parliament, and finally as Ombudsman. But when he retired from this last position, in 1990 when he was sixty nine, he continued in harness. What might be termed a semi-official position was his membership of the Human Rights Task Force, the precursor to the Human Rights Commission which was set up in 1996.

The Task Force was chaired by former Justice Soza, for whom my father had high regard, and when he gave up the position my father took over. That however was for a short time, for he was not appointed to the Commission when it was set up, sensibly enough for he was by then 75. However he did not entirely give up public life, for he then became Chairman of the Prisoners’ Welfare Society, and involved himself actively in seeking prison reform.

How clear-sighted he was about this I understood when I oversaw the development of a National Human Rights Action Plan, and was then appointed to Chair the Task Force that was meant to ensure its implementation. The need for reducing custodial sentencing, and also providing counsellors rather than guards, which I strove to achieve – though with little success, for we had a Minister who did not understand nor care about the issues – had all been understood by my father, though with no official position to promote action he too could achieve little given the sheer callousness of decision makers.

My sister and I urged him to give the position up when he reached his nineties, but when he finally did so, I understood why he had stayed in office for so long. For he added lustre to the position, whereas those who came afterwards took the position on because that added lustre to them. Unfortunately this is something now endemic with regard to public positions, as we see for instance with regard to Governing Bodies of schools, where there is competition to achieve what brings status, unlike for instance in the days when national figures such as D. S. Senanayake served on the Board of Governors of S. Thomas’ and added lustre to that body. And, though I do not have the highest opinion of G. L. Peiris as a politician, I did sympathize when, having served dutifully on the Board, he was removed on the grounds that he was not a Christian, and then replaced by someone who had nothing like his social standing. The same decline happened when my father ceased to be on that Board.

Social service had been part of my father’s make-up from early on, for when we were children he was heavily involved in the Child Protection Society – though we used to tease him about this, and say he only took this on to rival my mother’s work with the Girl Guides.

I concentrated on that in writing about my mother last week, and that was indeed her principal public responsibility. She had been heavily involved in its work from childhood, and in a sense she was the Association for nearly half a century. When I was a boy she spent much of her time there, and left so late that my father, who used to pick her up, was sometimes kept waiting for hours.

Fortunately the task was taken on by Hope Todd, who came to stay with us when he moved from Kandy to Colombo for work, and he was quite happy to linger because he was courting the then Secretary of the Guides, Kalyani Rajasuriya. She had been one of my mother’s guides, and continued to be a loyal supporter of both my mother and the guides, in that order, for sensibly Hope was not keen on her taking high office there.

My mother became a member of the World Committee when she was Chief Commissioner, and was well known at the international Guide Headquarters in London, not least because she had devised an ingenious way of paying Sri Lanka’s dues at a time when foreign exchange was limited. Whenever she travelled she would take a load of small batik elephants, and she got anyone else travelling to England to do the same, and these were then sold in London and the money used to cover whatever was due from Sri Lanka.

Guiding was not the only social service she engaged in formally. When I was little I remember her going once a week to Dematagoda to engage in what was called milk feeding, dishing out powdered milk to impoverished mothers in the area. I had thought that was something to do with the guides, but Kaly has only a vague recollection of this, though she too, like me and others of my mother’s acquaintance, was roped in to assist with the measuring out for those in need.

And late in her life my mother took on yet another responsibility, for a home for the elderly. She felt strongly about the need for such facilities, for she had coped despite her own illness with her mother as she aged. It was her recognition of the need for support for the elderly I think that prompted her to do the shopping for a care home, and deliver its weekly supplies to the place.

She did not bear the cost, though she did engage in fundraising so the home would have enough for its needs, but it was still a major task, given her age and her weakness after several heart attacks. But she continued with this almost to the very end, and I remember how relieved she was when a younger lady took the task on, just before she left for England for the operation from which she did not recover.

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