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
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
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
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