February 6, 2020 (LBO) – Some say only the good die young, however, I can assure you that this is not the case. Today at 100, one of the unknown greats is still very much alive in mind, body and soul. This great lady is my grandmother, Viola Welikala, who is 100 years of age as of today.
I have experienced a fair amount in my life, and had the privilege to interact with some amazing people. From Tony Blair to Bill Clinton, from Mahinda Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe to CBK, with diplomats, academics, billionaires, leaders, and many other great people. I have also had the privilege of interaction with people right at the bottom of the world. When I was shockingly remanded in a politicized legal system, I found myself in close quarters with a level of strata that I would have never encountered in my wildest dreams. High and low, all are human, and there is a story to each and every one of them.
However, throughout all these experiences and interactions, I can say the person that stays in my mind as the most prominent figure is my grandmother, Viola Welikala. It is not that I have known her intimately, or shared her struggles or inner-most ideas. What has impacted me most has been my observation and study of her.
Viola Welikala, despite actually being ‘just’ a housewife, has lived a life so rich and full of colour that sometimes I feel mine pales in comparison. My record of the facts is sketchy and incomplete, but I will try and piece it together. Her father was an engineer. After being educated in the elite British traditions, he started work in Sri Lanka. The one thing my grandmother told me about his career that sticks in my mind is that when he would be onsite at a project, he would always have to walk behind his British superior. Although he was an elite colonial, he was still clearly subservient to the ruling power. He had many children, the boys who were educated in the UK, and the girls married off to eligible young bachelors.
Viola Welikala, educated at CMS Ladies College Colombo by mostly foreign teachers, was one of the girls. Her fate was an arranged marriage to a Radiologist, Dr. Noel Welikala. I remember asking her as a young child about the vagaries of an arranged marriage, being an alien concept to me as an American child. Like a child would, I boldly asked her the question if she loved the man she was required to marry. Her answer was well… he was my husband. This seemingly terse unromantic reply is the embodiment of her personality. At the crux of her ethos was the concept of duty, and that was paramount in the relations she had with her family.
So Viola Welikala in my assessment (I really wasn’t around so I don’t know for sure) would have been a dutiful wife, and then mother of 4 children, 3 girls and a boy. Then, when her husband was at the youthful age of 41, he dropped dead of a heart attack. After his death, and to this day, she always wears a sari that is a shade of blue. She was never lazy in this tradition, always being fully attired except in instances where she was severely ill.
Viola Welikala was widowed with 4 young children under age 10. She had no advanced education or vocational skill, she did not know how to manage finances, nor did she have a father to take over her household. She had moderate wealth, which she used to survive and quietly do meaningful things. Money was often scarce, but she was able to maintain a dignified existence. She once told me that having 3 girls in Ladies College and not having funds for tuition, the school just said not to worry about it and to pay when she had the ability to do so. Such was the way people accommodated her, school officials must have understood the kind of person she was. In the end she used all the financial resources she had on living a full life, and you can see the value it has brought in the way people look at and treat her.
She is the quintessential do-er. While people like myself study problems, develop solutions, and thoughtfully implement, Viola Welikala was always charging in and solving (or getting into) problems. She was constantly helping others and the door to her house was always open. If she was a man, she would have given the shirt off her back if she thought someone needed it. She is the most generous person I have closely observed. She cared not for herself and only for others. Her selflessness once manifested itself in a classic statement. On the discussions of death and funerals she commented that she would want to be cremated and for her ashes she said. “You can do whatever you want with them, throw them anywhere, its of no concern to me.”
In her life she has seen it all. She has seen the world change from steam ships to space ships and has a very unique understanding of it all. Her mind has always been untrained, but razor sharp. Interacting with her in her 90s, I would often marvel and ponder if her cognitive ability was superior to mine, which was near its peak. Her secret, which is one I tell everyone, is that she reads a book a day. The only exaggeration in this statement is that some longer books may take her 2 or 3 days. In her old age she is the most voracious reader that I have ever seen, and I credit this for the sharpness of her mind.
Today on her 100th birthday, she will celebrate in the city where I grew up, Las Vegas. All her children and grandchildren will be there to honour her at this once in a lifetime occasion. Due to Sri Lanka’s broken political and legal culture, my small children (her only 3 great grand children) and I are the only ones unable attend. She was with us in Colombo on her 99th birthday. She will always be on my mind. Happy birthday Achchi.