Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 10 May 2015





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

A true gentle woman

"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life....."

Middlemarch -George Eliot

Suneetha Fernando , who left us on the May 10, 2014, was our friend. She was a truly, gentle woman, self-effacing and unpretentious. She taught Art at Bishop's College for 12 years and was actively involved in setting up the Art Room during the period when Gwen Dias-Abeysinghe was Principal.

She had many friends among the Teaching and Hostel Staff. Suneetha didn't fit the common perception of an art teacher as an eccentric and was not 'arty' in that sense. She was a traditionalist; a facilitator as well as a teacher, nurturing talent and encouraging autonomy . During her tenure she mentored an assistant who would take over when she went on early retirement.

Throughout a period of 27 years, she continued to keep in touch with the friends she had made at Bishop's College. She did not fail to attend weddings and funerals, or to visit a friend in hospital or when convalescing, even when the journey was a tedious one. When we visited her, spending the entire day sometimes, it was as if we were transported back to a more gracious period, to an oasis in the centre of the noise and activity of the city. We relaxed in her home with its carved ebony furniture, the jardinière of dried flowers, the mementos of her travels and on the walls her own charcoal drawing of her father displayed along with a George Keyt original.


The day would proceed agreeably, with desultory small talk and recapitulations and for a time we forgot our pre-occupations. We would be treated to a good meal that she had cooked herself. She would enquire after our families, sympathise with our problems and suggest practical solutions.There would be no one-upmanship, no prying, no subtle put-downs .At all times she epitomized acceptable and lady-like behavior.Those who did not celebrate Christmas, looked forward to her occasional invitations for the festive lunch. She continued to keep in touch with friends who had moved overseas, filling a single aerogram with a vast amount of news in her miniscule neat handwriting. There were cards for Christmas, when children married, when grandchildren were born or when a relative passed away. Then there were personal gifts lovingly made; pillowcases, dusters, baby shirts, cushion covers and cross stitch samplers. As a retired teacher and single with a declining income, these acts of generosity would have meant some personal sacrifice but she belonged to a generation that did not believe in self-indulgence.

Suneetha's virtues were, for the most part, of the old-fashioned kind. Proper and strait- laced, she was not amused by witticisms if they were off-colour by a mere whisker and would manage by her presence to repress the extrovert amongst us. She was easily shocked and it amused us greatly to see how innocent she was.

She had grown up among the genteel and was horrified by the increased use of bad language and slandering by our leaders and those in authority. In the face of change, the erosion of values and the abdication of responsibilities, she stubbornly clung to the belief that standards would be restored.


As we got older we were to recognise that what seemed like rigid conformity was a nostalgia for the order and civility she had known. If she had one fault it was that she was unbending. But then, she may have held others to the same high standards and strictures she had set for herself.

She was never boastful or insensitive and the one person we felt we could always depend on. Suneetha used to say that being single she had the freedom to do what she wanted with her time and it was this that was well spent in the service of others. For Suneetha, friendships were not utilitarian, based neither on self-interest nor even on mutual benefit. They needed only one condition - shared values and a common commitment to the good.

Not for her, was High Tea or shopping trips.What circumscribed her life and in the words of the hymn gave it meaning, was 'the trivial round, the common task' of daily life as well as the planning, arranging and accomplishment of helpful acts. This was the equivalent of the Divine Office of the Nun. She was quick to see and comment on the kindness that individuals show others without expectations of appreciation or recognition.

Although she had spent her entire life in Moratuwa, that bastion of bloodlines, she showed a total disinterest in one's antecedents, income or assets, choosing and keeping friends based on some private grading system. These friends were of different age groups and had very different personalities. During recess she would listen to our complaints: the obtuseness of a spouse, the intransigence of domestic help, trivial anxieties about children, with an expressionless face occasionally making an ironic comment.

Stoic and alone

This would leave us shamefaced, acutely aware of our own formlessness and forced to concede (yet again) that she herself dealt with the caprices of fate, stoic and alone. Over the years these would include being scammed by a Finance Company; an armed hold-up of the petrol station next door with consequent death and destruction; a bold heist of all her electrical equipment carried out in broad daylight; a failed attempt at running a business; and lately some chronic health problems with the associated distress and expense.

In the recent past, when two successive cook-women became mortally ill, she invited a family member to reside and nurse the relative in the final months whilst enabling access to the best treatment available from the public health system. It did not occur to her to send them back to their villages. This arrangement would no doubt have led to considerable inconvenience to herself as she too was frail and ailing but she did not think that an alternative was possible.

Thus she followed, unknowingly perhaps, Mother Teresa's dictum that everyone deserves loving care and a dignified death. To Suneetha, religion was a personal affair and she never spoke in a self-conscious or sanctimonious way about 'charity', 'duty' or the 'Christian way of doing things'; words which so often rob the action of its value.

She remained a private person and did not encourage an intrusion into her affairs. She embodied the worthy qualities of a bygone era and with her passing these too will slip away from our lives to be sorely missed, along with Suneetha , the individual. We are sure that there are many who have benefited from her unobtrusive acts of kindness and who now bemoan her passing. Although she was an old girl of Ladies College we, the current and former teachers of Bishop's College, recognise that she exemplified, perfectly, the school motto Non SibiSed Omnibus. 'Not for oneself but for others.'

May she Rest in Peace.

Delaine, Margaret, Lalitha, Sarojini, Damayanthi and Ranjini



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