A young girl fell in love. At seventeen, the starry eyed blond beauty scarcely knew the destiny that awaited her as she consented to marry an exotic young man hailing from Ceylon. An automobile engineering student undergoing apprenticeship at the Benz company in Stuttgart, Germany, Ranjith was a boy coming to terms with his family heritage and all the implications that entailed in 1960s Ceylon. They tied the knot in 1964 and sailed from England to their new home aboard the cruise liner QE II.
The implications of becoming a ‘Hamu’-the wife of the ‘Hammu Mahathaya’ (The husband)-was yet to dawn on her as she glimpsed Colombo from the deck of the ship and beheld the Perahera that awaited the newlyweds on the docs. The pomp and pageantry that was to follow, including elephant races and public games organised to celebrate the wedding, reflected the last vestiges of the feudal culture that yet persisted in rural Ceylon. The awesome yet alien responsibilities of her unexpected position as the Hamu of Samanpaya Walauwa, hemmed-in by storied family traditions and expectations, would have covered any but this adventurous young girl.
She resolved to embrace her destiny, learn to speak fluent Sinhala in 3 months, become a devout Buddhist and finally learned to cook more than just fried eggs; much to the delight of her deeply religious mother-in-law who hated breaking eggs! Once her course was set she never wavered, so the girl became Hamu and a much loved and respected member of her family and her society.
The burgeoning business she built out of sheer willpower had grown to become her life’s work. To her, each employee was family, her ‘Lamai’ (children) and even when the factories had multiplied to seven and the staff had grown to number 2,300, she was still Hamu, the one who took the time to get to know each employee’s family personally
She got used to running the household with its extensive staff and presided over the hospitality for several dozen unexpected friends and visitors likely to drop in during any given day. This often included barely announced drop-ins by ministers and prime ministers on their way to duties further down south. Samanpaya Wallauwa was once again humming with grand ballroom parties attended by the good and the great of the day. She also embraced her adopted Sinhala Buddhist heritage wholeheartedly, annually organising three Maha Piritha ceremonies attended by several thousand devotees at a time; a practice she upheld without fail through all her turbulent years in Sri Lanka.
Sitting beside her Hamu Mahhathaya on the porch each Sunday morning at Samanpaya, they would lend an ear and give judgement on a variety of inter-villager disputes brought forth by a long stream of petitioners. Tradition and the trust placed on them by the petitioners themselves being their only jurisdiction. It was a different world back then.
1972 was a tumultuous year in many respects, but the LRC Act was a devastating blow to the Family. Being landed gentry, the act stripped the Family of 32,000 acres of fertile, productive land along with dozens of houses and all of the income. It all happened in the course of one week! It was the death knell of an era, a blow many felt was irrecoverable. Not Her! Standing in the midst of financial ruin, chaos and depression she resolved that this would not be the end of the people she had grown to love. She resolved to fight!
She stabilised the family
Bringing her German efficiency and zeal to bare, she set out to stabilize the family. Reaching out to relatives in Germany, she created a new market for exotic batiks and traditional Sri Lankan masks in the cultural heartland of Germany. She hired wood carvers from Ambalangoda and batik painters from Hikkaduwa and soon had a little factory roaring with life. Never having done business before, much less exported anything, she decided to Learn by Doing, a trait she endeavored to pass on to her children and those she loved.
As the businesses grew and prosperity returned, destiny had another twist in store for Hamu, this time on the domestic front. The stress and strain of momentous events had overtaken their marriage. Many a house-wife in 1978 would have been daunted to remain in what was suddenly an inhospitable home, in what was still a foreign country, to face a potentially hostile and powerful family. Not Her! She resolved to fight, ready to battle any and all for the rights of her two sons and the heritage she was determined should be theirs. That day the Lioness within her awoke and her roar would be felt by all who knew her in the years to come.
She was soon to find that, her strength of character, her integrity and her kindness had taken deep root in her adopted family. To a person the Family stood by her and her children, ostracizing their own blood in the process, to stand up for what was right. The dissolution of the union moved to the domain of the law courts where she fought for 17 years to ensure her children’s inheritance and finally prevailed! “It took me seventeen minutes to get married and seventeen years to get out of it!” she would often joke in years to come.
The burgeoning business she built out of sheer willpower had grown to become her life’s work. To her, each employee was family, her ‘Lamai’ (children) and even when the factories had multiplied to seven and the staff had grown to number 2,300, she was still Hamu, the one who took the time to get to know each employee’s family personally. The Hamu who summoned abusive employees and husbands of employees alike for a public berating, who shipped off alcoholic husbands to rehab, who intervened and set right injustices done to the weak through sheer power of will. She was Hamu on whose shoulders innumerable employees laid their burdens, who was there for them when adversity and personal tragedy struck, whose fairness, sincerity and genuine affection was beyond question.
As the years rolled on, her tireless hard work continued to bear fruit. Winning many accolades and singular honors, shattering that proverbial glass ceiling in business and social realms, she was a presence not to be missed in any room! A pillar of strength as the matriarch of the extended family and an unlikely custodian of proud Sinhala values and traditions which she strived to instill in all. Each year, all her employees were taken, at her expense, on a trip to different historical and religious places around the Island. Many thousands of them learned who their ancestors were and what Sri Lanka once was, under her guidance and patronage. That was the measure of her devotion to her adapted homeland and its heritage.
Hamu the indomitable business woman was also a caring and nurturing Amma and Nanda to her sons and many nieces and nephews. She was the first call when her sons or their friends got in trouble and the fiercest fighter for their cause. All children were hers and she treated her sons, nephews, nieces and their friends with equal love and caring. She never counted the cost to herself and was a mother, father, friend and mentor every time Her People needed her. Irrespective of her huge work commitments, Family Always Came First! Ever the warrior, she instilled courage in us and encouraged us to stand up to our full potential, ideals that a generation of us still cherish and try to live upto.
As the winds of change blew in the early 90s, her world changed again. No longer were traditions and values prized above cash and greed and those virtues Hamu was not willing to concede. As the nature of business and politics changed, times got tough. Ever assailed by lesser men trying to topple a colossus, she battled on in the face of slight and defamation, betrayal and greed. Through it all, she refused to relinquish her treasured values of honor and compassion, antiquated as those quaint notions had become in the feeding frenzy of the modern business world.
As with all things, time breaks what will not bend and thus it was for Hamu. Her indomitable spirit was moored to the love of her adopted country, her family and the responsibility she felt for her employees. Her spirit, that had overcome all, could not bear the breaking of her heart caused by the betrayal of those she had once cherished and protected. She felt that the country and people she dedicated her life to uplifting had taken its fill and now seemed to turn on her. In 1999, though broken in spirit, she yet resolved to do her duty to her own aged mother in Germany. As the sun set, she departed the land she had loved fiercely as her own for 34 years, never to return.
As always her spirit endured and she discovered a deeper spirituality in the ancient teachings. She dedicated her new life in Germany to meditation, contemplation and bringing spirituality to the lives of countless others there, following the spiritual example of her Singhalese mother-in-law who abdicated her wealth to become a Buddhist nun. As the laws of Anicca invariably took its toll, she remained the Grand Old Dame of yesteryear, forever the Hamu of Samanpaya Walauwa, even in exile.
Eventually, as her physicians predicted her imminent demise and her loving sons and their friends rushed to bid teary farewells, she listened patiently and smiled. She looked deeply into their eyes and said “No Rush”, face alight with her cheeky smile as she sought, even then, to comfort them. As the predicted lifespan of a few days stretched into months and finally two years, the bewildered physicians inquired of the sons how it was possible for her yet to linger. The answer lay in her Indomitable Spirit, She as always would depart this world in her own time and of her choosing.
She was Indomitable, a Colossus, a Beacon, a Strength and an Example.
She was Adelheid Ursula Wittachy.
She was our Mother.
The world is lessened by her passing.
(15/04/1945) - (22/08/2020)
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