Cared for women and children with great love

In Appreciation: Malathi de Alwis (1963 -2021)

Even though our parents had been friends going back to the 1950s and we had met sporadically as children, my friendship with only Mala blossomed in the last five years or so.  As is typical with so many Sri Lankans, we had multiple overlapping social connections – Pradeep being my dear school mate, Mala’s mother and my aunt being cousins, Mala being close friends with my cousins in England, Mala and her friends staying at my brother’s camping site in Kumana– so it was almost inevitable that our paths would cross. Thankfully, our paths did cross and my life was enriched significantly because of my interactions with Mala.

When I think about my interactions with Mala, three facets immediately leap to the forefront.  First, her searing intellect and stellar record as a ground-breaking cultural anthropologist in Sri Lanka. Mala was truly a pioneer in this field researching, writing and speaking so eloquently about nationalism, militarism, humanitarianism, gender issues and feminism in Sri Lanka.  Her original research in the area of militarized sexual violence, particularly as it related to women, brought a level of intellectual rigor to a topic that very few researchers in Sri Lanka had explored.  Then, Mala’s skill in navigating between art and anthropology was demonstrated when she collaborated on a landmark photography exhibition on the goddess Paththini.  I was also fortunate to join a 90-minute walking tour in 2018 that Mala created and entitled ‘Monuments and Memorials.’ The tour began at the Isipathanaramaya Viharaya and wondered through my childhood neighborhood (Thimbirigasyaya) and ended at the Lionel Wendt.  Along the way, Mala provided fascinating commentary and rich historical detail on the monuments, memorials and famous buildings we encountered.

Second, her deep empathy and compassion for others, particularly those scarred in innumerable ways bythe decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka.  She opened her heart, particularly to women and children, and she was involved in a number of initiatives to lift these individuals up from the depths of misery.  One such initiative Mala was passionate about was the Ezhuval (‘She Will Rise!’) programme in the Eastern Province.  This program provides traumatized girls and young women in the Eastern Province a range of supports (material and emotional) in preparation for higher education opportunities, including scholarships to study at universities in India and Bangladesh.  Mala was ardent about helping these young women and worked tirelessly to ensure that funds were raised from all corners of the globe to facilitate this.  Notwithstanding all the discomfort and pain she was experiencing related to her illness, Mala still had the desire to focus on these young women and work on plans to improve their situation.


 Mala’s skill in navigating between art and anthropology was demonstrated when she collaborated on a landmark photography exhibition on the goddess Paththini

Third, her profound love for spending time in the wilds of Sri Lanka, enjoying the fauna and flora found in such abundance across the resplendent isle. From my conversations and correspondence with Mala, I quickly realized how much she valued and appreciated being in the serenity of rural Sri Lanka, enjoying nature in all its profusion.  Next to swimming, I cannot think of another pursuit she may have enjoyed more than camping by the Kumbuk River in Kumana National Park. There will be so many people who will miss Mala terribly: Pradeep, her parents, her sisters, family members and the legions of friends whose lives she touched in such a meaningful way.  

Then, there are the professional colleagues who relied on her trailblazing work to stimulate their own research and to whom she was such an inspiration.  Then, there are all those young women in organizations like Ezhuval, to whom she was not only a motivational figure but often, the only source of advancement to a purposeful life.  Mala, we realize that you are free from the excruciating pain and the suffering of recent years.  No more prodding, poking and jabbing; no more treatments or infusions that may or may not bring relief; no more medications that set off waves of nausea and queasiness; no more earthly worries.  Only that eternal, blissful sleep that cannot be disturbed.  To those of us left behind, let’s strive to memorialize Mala by focusing on the things that mattered to her such as the Ezhuval programme and the environment.
Sujit CanagaRetna

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