Ironically, I first met Sunila in a white van, long before its usage became more sinister. It was 2001. We were en route to the airport. As a new researcher and coming from a family disconnected from Colombo’s concentric activist circles, I had only read and heard about Sunila before and was unsure how to react to or behave in her company. Like with so many others elsewhere and at different times, by the end of that trip, it felt as if we had known each other for years. That was her power – and it was an amazing one. It was more than just charisma. Even in the stories so many shared after her death just this week, Sunila emerges as a unifying figure, able to locate herself with utter ease and confidence amongst diverse groups in Sri Lanka and around the world. More than that, she was deeply loved by all these communities, who each took to her as one of their own.
Not that everyone loved her. Even a cursory web search indicates how much she is reviled, even in death. Perhaps as a consequence of protracted violence, many Sri Lankans are utterly unable to embrace difference with respect, or respect diversity. Sunila was no maverick. It’s the majority who are the intolerant. I don’t know if the world Sunila left behind is better because of her, and what she championed on so many levels. Many would argue it is, but who knows what really endures? As we proceeded to the cemetery, I did wonder why more didn’t join us – why a life like Sunila’s is so damn marginal to our mainstream media, when even the most banal, sexist marriage proposals make front-page news. I wondered why just a few years ago, the then Sri Lankan Ambassador at the UN in Geneva blocked Sunila’s representation on the grounds that she lacked adequate academic qualifications. The hate, hurt and harm directed against Sunila were significant and obviously took their toll, but few knew of this. To many, Sunila was always a potent combination of firebrand energy and courage. She was the one you went to when in trouble.
I wonder to whom she went to.
I saw Sunila last at the Park Street Mews two weeks ago, accompanying her daughter who was moderating a panel discussion. True to form, Sunila sported her signature smile, never once letting go of an opportunity to rib. With twinkling eye and curled lip (and that long drawn out ‘machan’), she could always be trusted to give scathing insights and criticism, but never inhumanely, rudely or without reasoned, just basis. At the end of that long session, she picked out points made by the speakers she found interesting with amazing clarity, as she walked slowly towards the exit.
We often wait until death to praise exemplary lives. Part of this is convention, part also the fear of embarrassing the subject by too much adulation when alive. Sunila’s life, warts and all, is a powerful counter-argument to not wait until the subject is forever silent to celebrate, remember and interact. She was, for all of us, a better-angel. She was friend, mentor and more. She was mother.
I wish she had more time to sing for us. With us.
Written for Ceylon Today, at the invitation of the paper. Appeared in print on 13 September 2013.