I remember one evening about two years ago. I was leaving my office, carrying a bouquet of flowers. A young girl asked me, “for whom are those floweres?” I said, “for my girl friend – it’s her birthday!” I got a look. There was incredulity, amusement and I like to believe, a bit of jealousy too.
“She’s over 80 years old,” I smiled.
Saji Cumaraswamy. She was not looking for me or looking out for me. I wasn’t looking for her or looking out for her either. And yet, she and I met a few years ago in the strange intersections of orbits set in motion by the hand of God, as she might say, or by reasons that really do not require investigation because what matters is point of intersection as I would say.
She was one of several people who responded to an article I had written. Back then I was contributing a daily column to the ‘Daily News’ as well as several for other newspapers. I always respond to reader-comments and that was the beginning of our friendship.
She wrote to the point. Courteous. Respectful. I can’t remember either the article or the comment, but I remember that what she said made sense, as did everything she’s since written to me. She was one of my most insightful critics. Whenever she pointed error or critiqued positions I had taken she was utterly civilized. She was kind and gentle even when her objections were harsh.
I can’t remember when I began calling her Aunty Saji. At some point she must have told me her age or it might have been because she referred to things that happened long before I was born. She had an excellent memory and she clearly reflected long and deep before saying anything. Her comments were never arrogant and she always inserted relevant caveats to her claims. And she wrote about a wide range of subjects. She had clearly lived an eventful life. She had seen and experienced much. She was matriarch to a clan that lived in all parts of the world. She was fond of them all and must have missed them a lot. But she never let memory or affection get under her skin. She knew I believe that these things are like carcinogens. She never gripped hard and neither did she dismiss callously. She was as close as one can get to treating the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. Quite a Buddhist, I would say.
I have always been convinced that old people are like libraries so I urged her on several occasions to write her story or rather her stories. She laughed. However, after a couple of years, she started sending me bits and pieces, some incident or an anecdote that held something more than a personal story. I believe she shared these with some members of her family.
Her family. As I said, she was fond of them. She was proud when pride was warranted and was critical when criticism was deserved. She loved them all, regardless. I think she must have mentioned each and every member of her large family from her grandparents to her parents, husband, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She assumed incorrectly that I remembered all the names because after a while she would mention that so and so said or did this or that. I couldn’t always remember whether it was a grandson or a son-in-law or someone else. Her memory was superior to mine. She remembered the names of my wife and my children. She remembered my birthday too. She gave my children gifts and chided me for not collecting them. It meant so much to me that Aunty Saji came to the Library Services Board Auditorium a couple of years ago when I launched 6 collections of my poetry.
Aunty Saji shared interesting articles and other things she picked from either email or the internet, like Einstein’s letter to his daughter where he says, “Perhaps we are not yet ready to make a bomb of love, a device powerful enough to entirely destroy the hate, selfishness and greed that devastate the planet. However, each individual carries within them a small but powerful generator of love whose energy is waiting to be released.”
Saji Cumaraswamy was a bomb of love.
There were times when we discussed philosophy and religion. She didn’t care too much about institutions and personalities. She had a relationship with “God”, I figured. She knew I was an atheist and said she had been one too. She never asked me to consider the possibility that god existed. I never asked her to consider the possibility that there was no such thing as a creator-god. But we talked about and learnt from our respective cosmologies. She spoke about the Sermon on the Mount and she gave me a very interesting interpretation of the dictum of ‘turning the other cheek’.
‘I've just returned home after a 'thanksgiving service' at the little church -the corner of Jawatte Rd. It was for the Very Rev Fr James Amerasekara, who was Vicar at St Paul's church, Kandy in the late 60s and 70s. A lovely man. Not a great speaker, but good-very liberal and kind. He put up with my never-ending questions about church dogma. He died some years ago. But what really interested me was what Bishop Duleep de Chickera said in his short sermon. Apparently Fr James was chaplain at St Thomas when Duleep joined as a new curate. He said Fr James' ministry was governed by 2 points. The first was intriguing. The reference was to Jesus' exhortation- 'If a man slaps you on your cheek, turn to him the other also'. He said that he, together with many others, found that very difficult, until he realized that what Jesus meant was 'stay within slapping distance; don’t move away because that distance is also the distance for an embrace’.’
That’s not just compassion but a composite of the sathara brahma viharana: metta, mudita, karuna and upekkha (compassion, the ability to rejoice at another’s joy, loving kindness and equanimity). Our respective belief systems, in the way we articulated and engaged with them, were within slapping distance but nevertheless to us it seemed that it made more sense to embrace.
I loved Aunty Saji dearly and I will always cherish her beautiful ways and especially the way she smiled and said everything she was unable to say the last time I saw her. I told her 'I've never come across anyone so at peace with who they are, where they have been and where they believe they are going.' She smiled again. I said ‘I love you so much,’ kissed her and left. I like to believe she is where she believed she was going to be or, if not, in a place I believe is warranted by the way she lived and loved.