Sunday, October 26, 2014

Goodbye Ammi (Mum)!

When mum was diagnosed with oral cancer in May 2014 we were unconsciously bracing for the fact that this was the beginning of the end.  What we weren’t prepared for was that she would leave us so soon.  I was on my way to see her one last time but she passed away while I was in transit in Singapore.  I believe she heard my voice though, as my sister who was with her in hospital told me she closed her eyes for the last time, minutes after i said “I love you mum”  This is my eulogy, delivered at the Methodist Church Mt Lavinia at her funeral service.

I thank you for joining us here today to celebrate and reflect on the life of our dear Ammi.  She will always be remembered in our hearts as a devoted wife, loving mother, generous mother in law, a cherished grandmother, a caring sister, a favourite auntie and a faithful friend.  She touched the lives of many people from all walks of life and she was a person who was truly loved by all those whose lives she touched.  Ammi enjoyed a rich and wonderful Life full of love & laughter, worship & friendship, music & song and travel & discovery.   It has been a fun filled journey of 82 energetic years with the random speed hump along the way that occasionally made her slow down but never made her stop.

Ammi built an amazing Community of people around her from all walks of life and many cultures.  She gave of herself and her time generously and her friends and family gave it all back to her.  You shared the fun times and rallied around her at her time of deepest need. I thank you all what you meant to her.  You know who you are and the part you played in her life.  It is always dangerous to mention names but it will be remiss of me if I didn’t.

Ramani –Ammi and Thaththi always referred to you as their third child and we are truly grateful for the constant love, support and care that you and Ajith gave Ammi during this difficult time, despite the constraints in your own life.  We are also grateful that you have always being there for her as a sounding board after we left.  She was truly a part of your family and especially enjoyed being included in all the
family trips you organised.  You didn’t just care for her physical health but also for her mental, emotional and spiritual health and for that Nangi and I are truly grateful. 

Audrey Aunty, I know how devastating it was for you to see Ammi ill.  Thanks so much for the comfort you gave her during these last few months, but also for the lifetime of memories you amassed together.  Nobody else has shared all 82 of her years and in such a close fashion.  Priyan & Shanthi, Nimali & Lalith, special thanks to you guys as well –for stepping in for doctors appointments, for popping in to see Ammi on a regular basis and for being there as backup when she needed it.  Nangi and I could rest easy at night, knowing that you were all there - just a phone call away.

We are also deeply thankful to the Church Community where Ammi and Thaththi worshiped for more than 50 years.  Your constant prayers and Sandra, the updates you circulated on her condition every day at 11 throughout her illness, uplifted her and gave her strength.  Your friendship and encouragement gave her hope and her role in this community gave her a purpose in life.

The friendships she made here were an integral part of our childhood.  As kids, the aunties in the MWF - Miriam & Irma, Daphne & Ira together with Nirmali and Osadhi were part of our extended family.  I still remember going for movies together and being completely embarrassed by the rustle of the siri siri bags as the aunties pulled out the patties and cutlets they had smuggled in.  Ammi has now built many more close friendships in this community and I know you will all miss her dearly. She was the live wire in the Young at Heart club, the graphic designer for the church magazine, the keeper of finance records, the regular visitor to the Elders Home and a leader who set an example. She had a deep abiding faith that helped her deal with her illness without complaint or question and enabled her to transition from this life to the next in peace and gratitude.

I also want to make special mention of the role that Ari and Leela played in Ammi’s life.  They came into her life shortly after Thaththi’s passing when she found herself alone for the first time.  Never one to complain about her lot in life, she created a new family unit with these two people who became part of her community and would be of great assistance to her – one as her driver and the other as her cook.  They too loved Ammi dearly and have not stopped letting us know what a kind, and generous lady she was not just to them, but to their families and the people in their respective villages. 

A special thank you to all the doctors that cared for Ammi during her life, many of whom are part of our extended family.  Thank you for your care, advice, and reassurance. 

But what of her story:

Friendship has been one of the cornerstones of Ammi’s life.  She was a student at Holy Family Convent and some of her oldest friends are the girls she went to school with, and with whom she shared a wonderful camaraderie that has lasted from their pre-teens to their eighties.  As kids, we remember that Ammi never missed an old girls reunion at her alma mater.  She was an arts student and a good athlete and after leaving school worked as a librarian and netball coach before she got married and settled down to being a full time wife and later a mother.

Ammi and Thaththi married in 1958.  It was an arranged marriage in the sense that they were introduced by well meaning friends.  I remember she told me she fell in love with Thaththi as they were watching the movie ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’.  Seeya was a very conservative man and had wanted to send a chaperone along but my dad had his way and the chaperone stayed home.  A few months after they met, Thaththi won a scholarship to Stanford to do post grad work in International Law.  They hardly knew each other when they married 3 months after that first introduction and she took off with this perfect stranger to a far away land.

Ammi often said that year was one of the best years of their life together.  It was a wonderful carefree time, away from both families, with complete freedom to explore the world and discover each other.  I remember her telling me later - to cleave you must leave.  I recall stories of them camping in Yosemite; buying their first car in California; making friends with the expat community; and their first little home in Palo Alto.  There were funny stories too—like the time she asked the Methodist Minister who dropped in to visit if he would like a beer—not realising the Methodist have different rules to the Anglicans! 

To have an opportunity to travel to the US in 1958 would have been pretty special but they didn’t stop there.  They saved enough to then go explore Europe and Egypt.  They ran out of money in Holland; ran into a spot of bother on the autobahn; and were almost thrown out of a hotel in Dublin when the check in clerk realised that the De Silva’s were not Portuguese but some darkies from Sri Lanka.  The world was a different place in 1958 but they were having the time of their lives, crafting that first chapter together. 

As kids, Nangi and I heard many stories of those idyllic years in far-flung places.  They were my favourite fairy tales and are partly to blame for igniting my infection with the travel bug!  I could never have imagined then, that when I was in my twenties I would follow in their footsteps to do my own post grad work at UC Berkeley – Stanford’s great rival.  When they visited me 30 years after that original journey, we discovered many of their old haunts together and met friends Ammi had lost touch with in the Palo Alto church where they had worshipped.

After they came back from Stanford, Thaththi and Ammi started their life at #32 - in the house my grandfather gifted to them.  Four years after they married, on the 4th of Feb, 1962 I disrupted their peaceful world and about 2 years later Nangi was born.  Ammi was a born mother and she took to her new role like a duck to water.  Nangi and I just adored her.  She was so much fun to be with and had so many varied interests and passions that we were spoilt for choice.  As kids, we cherry picked the ones that rang true for us and they couldn’t have been more different.  Much later in life, Ammi once said to me, “how could you & Nangi be two peas from one pod?”!   

One of my earliest memories of Ammi is of her teaching me to play table tennis on our dining table in the old house.  I was born a tomboy and inherited her love of sport, which for me would later transition to a love for the great outdoors.  As I grew older, we set out a badminton court on our driveway and played many competitive matches.  When I was about 10, they got me a bike for Christmas and Ammi taught me to how to ride even though she herself had never done so!

Nangi on the other hand related to Ammi’s feminine qualities and shared her passion for fashion, food, cooking and entertaining.  She helped Ammi host fun filled dinner parties that were executed to perfection after Thaththi had scrutinised the menu and made a few amendments.  Food, fireworks,laughter and sing alongs were the magic ingredients of those gatherings. She always had special treats for us when we came home, tired and hungry from school.  String hopper buriyanis, dough nuts dusted with icing sugar, home baked cakes.  If I close my eyes I can still taste the raw cake mixture that Nangi and I licked off the mixing bowl.  I can hear her cheerful, happy voice singing along to the golden oldies as I walk in to the kitchen and ask – “What’s for dinner Ammi”?. 

Our home was always an open door and Ammi loved playing mum to all our friends who were made to feel welcome and always left well fed.  Family was a really important part of her life.  We were lucky to grow up next door to Audrey Aunty and her family and the rest of our cousins were not far away.  We all grew up as one big family, sharing the camaraderie of our early lives, celebrating birthdays and Christmases, holidays and Royal Thomian matches.   Ammi had a heart of gold when it came to caring for others.  Whether it was a donation for a good cause, gifts to the family or to the many domestics who always seemed to beat a path to her door.  She never stopped giving.

My cousins, Nangi and I held the Perera genes accountable for many things. From our gammy knees to our good looks; our imaginary Portuguese
ancestor who passed on the travel-bug gene; my inability to remember names and faces; our loud personalities—we credited the Perera’s for all these traits.  In fact my dad—a quiet man by comparison—affectionately referred to us as the 3 barbarians and would often complain he could hear us in his chambers next door, while trying to engage in consultations with important clients

Despite the oceans that separated us, I feel incredibly lucky that I could share my passion for travel and discovery with Ammi.  She was always game for anything and not afraid to live life a little dangerously.  We roughed it on 10-hour bus rides in Thailand with locals who didn’t speak a word of English, we walked the crookedest street together in San Francisco, slept on the floor in basic hotels in South Korea, built a snowman in NY and sipped wine under the stars in the Red Centre.  More recently we discovered the hidden gems of Sri Lanka –Jeep safaris in National Parks and road trips that criss crossed the country.  One of my last adventures with Ammi was whale watching last Christmas.  She was a little wobbly but she hopped on the boat and we had a whale of a time.  Ammi also had the opportunity to spend time with Steven, to get to know the things that make him tick and to be at peace in the knowledge that I have found my soul mate for the next stage of my life. 

One of Ammi’s biggest roles was the part she played in Thaththi’s life.  He had the freedom to pursue his destiny not just because she kept the homes fires burning, but because she was the woman behind his successful career.  We will always remember her fingers flying across the typewriter keys in the old days as she stayed burned the midnight oil, typing draft after re draft.  She was by his side as he travelled from his early days as an unknown lawyer in the Attorney General’s department to his career highs as adviser to many Prime Ministers and Presidents and later as Ambassador to the United Nations in NY.  

After I and then Nangi left home, now more than 25 years ago, they would take a few months off their busy lives each year to visit with us, initially doing round trips between California and Australia.  Then, after I moved to Sydney, coming to Australia for the 3 months of summer, so we could enjoy a family Christmas together.  Nowhere was too far to find ways to make memories.  Of course both Ammi and Thaththi adored their grand kids and Ammi came to Sydney to be with Nangi for the births of Sanjeev, Rajeev and Krishan.  She was very proud of their achievements and I know very grateful that despite the distance both she and Thaththi were able to watch them grow and become such wonderful young men.  They were lucky to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary before Thaththi passed away and they marked that milestone by quietly gifting a house to a family displaced by the Tsunami.

I am so thankful for Ammi’s life, and for her guiding hand in mine.  She didn’t just teach me to aim high and to dare to dream but she supported those
dreams and gave me the freedom and ability to chase them.  She made sure I had the skills to fly away when the time was right.  She was always proud of what I achieved but especially so when I pursued my love for public speaking, travel, photography and writing.  Despite any fears she might have harboured as I travelled the globe for a year on my own, she was quietly proud of her achievement in raising a daughter with the ability to do so.  She shared in each and every one of those journeys by reading my blog posts, trolling through my photos on FB and making sure we caught up at least once a week on Skype.  For a lady of her generation, I was proud of her ability to keep abreast of technological changes.  The internet and the software packages she taught herself gave her access to another world, kept us connected and entertained her for hours.

When I look back at the life we shared together I have nothing but happy thoughts.  Despite living apart for more than 27 years, we had an incredible connection.  I shared all my dreams with Ammi and she was always in tune with the highs and lows of my life.  There has rarely been a year when we did not discover something new together.  Those memories will sustain me.   If someone asked me what did your parents give you I would say:  My father taught me how to think laterally; My mother taught me how to live life with passion.  Thanks to them my bucket list is as interesting as my reading list! 

Ammi, It will be hard to not be able to Skype you, the next time I have some exciting news to share.  Yet, I believe we will always stay connected.  I will have many imaginary conversations with you with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye.  You always loved the sound of my laughter and I will imagine that sound waves will still carry it to you. 

You will continue to live in the space you carved out for yourself in my heart a long time ago --the sort of space that only a mother can carve.  Ammi I love you.  Thank you for always accepting me just the way I am, for respecting the choices I made, for always bringing out the best in me and for loving me for who I am.  Thank you for walking beside me for more than half a century.  When we reconnect, we will share more laughter; and you will hear the rest of my story and it will be magic.

Rest in Peace.  Your work here is done.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Consumerism, Society & Our Ecological Future

We are at UTS to hear Tim Kasser, a visiting professor from Knox College in the US speak about our consumer culture.  I have never been obsessed with consumerism and I hate the frenzy of the end of year season when people seem to go hell bent on buying everything in sight.  The idea of voluntary simplicity intrigues me.  I know that I have often thought to myself that I was happiest when I was travelling the world with just the clothes I carried in my backpack.  I find simple living appealing and I have always wanted to share experiences rather than gifts.

Tim reminds us that after the 9/11 attacks, Bush encouraged the people of the US to go shopping so they could keep their economy growing.  This urging for people to go shopping and messages like “get down to Disney Land” eventually resulted in the US being severely affected by the Global Financial Crisis.  Surveys show there has been an exponential rise in students whose philosophy of life is to be very well off financially.  Unfortunately, results in increased social, personal and ecological costs.  Of course all of us are somewhat materialistic.  It is getting some balance in our lives that Tim is here to inspire us about.
Tim goes on to discuss the notion of eco-attitudes.  He explains that the more materialistic you are, the less concerned you are about the environment.  Your behaviour will result in a larger ecological footprint and your frequency of engaging in eco-behaviours such as re-cycling, using renewable energy sources, composting your waste or taking public transport will be less.  He further explains that our social attitudes will also be impacted by the degree of our materialistic behaviour.  We will have less empathy, we will have a higher racial and ethnic prejudice and we would be more predisposed to a social dominance orientation.  That is a predisposition to a ‘dog eat dog world’, someone would prefer a hierarchical social system than a more egalitarian one.

So what are the causes of materialism?  Often it is as a result of social modelling, where people strive to keep up with the trends promoted on TV and by their peers.  It comes from living in a neo liberal capitalist nation or one that promotes global capitalism at the expense of the public good, social services and exploitation of our natural resources.  Sometimes it is a result of having experienced poverty, a lack of love as a child or feeling confronted by your own mortality.  I find the co-relations quite revealing because I had never really thought about materialism quite like that.  He goes on to explain that less materialistic people would have more intrinsic values such as self acceptance, a sense of community and affiliation. 

Tim also discusses the idea of voluntary simplicity.  It is based on the fact that your lifestyle could be focussed on being “inwardly rich” rather than outwardly wealthy.  It is often associated with accepting a lower level of income and hence a lower level of consumption so that you can find more time to pursue more meaningful things in life.  The things you pursue will vary with each individual but will often include more time with those you love, reading, writing and other creative pursuits, contemplation, meditation, spiritual exploration, a greater focus on your community and sustainable living.  Duane Elgin has defined voluntary simplicity as “ a manner of living that is outwardly simple but inwardly rich…a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more life will be returned to us.”

Such a commitment is not about being judgemental of other people’s choices but rather deciding for yourself how much consumption is enough.  It also does not mean that you cut yourself off from society, that you reject the technological advances of today or that you become a monk.  I know from my own periods of living more simply that I have never felt such freedom or been happier.   A recent web article I read from the blog of the Simplicity Collective explains these concepts well.  See:

The blog also explains what Voluntary Simplicity is not.  It is not a glorification or romanticizing of poverty.  Poverty is extremely debilitating and the advocated of voluntary simplicity are not downplaying the plight of those who live lives of deprivation and starvation.  It is more about an empowering expression of freedom, of escaping the gilded cage and making a choice to live with fewer market commodities in the belief that this can result in a better world.

Finally Tim shares 3 thoughts.  He raises the point that even our environmental communication is couched in terms of money.  When advocating for an environmental project, we are encouraged to prove its worth in the terms of a business case, or through a benefit cost ratio rather than talk about the intrinsic values of the project.  The advertising we are bombarded with encourages us to be more materialistic and impacts our sense of wellbeing.  We need to think of alternative business models   
such as benefit co-ops that benefit the whole community rather than a conglomerate.

I come away from the lecture feeling inspired and having learnt a little more about the journey we are on.  I was glad we have made a positive step away from the work-buy-consume-die paradigm that is promoted in the world we live.  It is both a little scary and exciting to be on a journey where we are consciously seeking an alternative lifestyle.  One where we work less, consume less and focus on developing our creativity and our sense of well-being.  Finding time to do the things that we love is refreshing and rewarding.  We have also been reminded about the importance of pursuing intrinsic values—those that are inherently rewarding to pursue, rather than extrinsic values—those that are centred on external approval or rewards. Intrinsic values include social justice, creativity, self acceptance and connection with nature while extrinsic values include wealth, social status, prestige, material success and concern about image. They are not mutually exclusive but we have all of these values to varying degrees at various stages of our life.  I am reminded that my exhibition Fate or Destiny and the ideas I discussed there are also closely related to what we learnt today.