VOL. 19, NO. 291

Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka
jan 30

5th death anniversary of Sri Lanka’s leading Nursing Educationist

Trixie Marthenez’s book “Those Delhi Days (1950-54)” tells part of the story. Chandra Samarasinghe was barely out of her teens when she set off to New Delhi from Colombo in 1950, to start a new chapter in her life. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor and was studying for her university entrance exams but there she was sitting in a train with the two other Ceylonese girls who had been selected together with her, for four years at one of Asia’s leading Universities to do an honours degree, having won the coveted scholarships on offer beating a room full of extravagantly dressed applicants. Leaving Ceylon and heading off to a new country, a new way of life, she was soon to introduce herself to her Delhi classmates with a proudly delivered “I am from Lanka”.

They were the post colonial generation of young Ceylonese women, preparing to take over from the British, and as their lecturers in New Delhi advised them, to maintain and improve on colonial standards.

They were excited at the prospect of adventure, but already homesick. Their motivation was high; the girls got on well and it promised to be a wonderful four years of academic success and exuberant enjoyment of University life away from home (but not too far to pop back for holidays). Her friend Trixie was to remember that Chandra regarded Tagore as her favourite poet and that her treasured statue of Gandhi entrusted to another friend to bring back to Sri Lanka safely, arrived broken.

Chandra was the 3rd child of Peter Lionel Arthur Samarasinghe and his wife Rosalyn. Rosalyn liked to play the piano, the piano accordion, sing and dance and Peter liked to sing along with her. He was a proud man, who had found the love of his life in his wife and was devastated at her passing away when his younger daughter Chandra was only 11 months old. There were many evenings of songs from the old days at Trinity College, Kandy, where he and all 4 of his brothers were schooled, and his son Nissanka would continue to keep the old school flag flying musically, for many decades to come. Chandra would sing along with her brother to the delight of all their children, and they would relate stories to the next generation of their dad singing every night after work with their eldest sister at the piano. Chandra would grow up to be a confident young woman like her mum, with a beautiful voice trained by Saranagupta Amarasingha, which won many awards in school. Having completed her grade 8 piano exams at age 13 she would learn the Spanish guitar and play it to her little twins. Her cousin Bertie Samarasinghe, Colombo’s master physiotherapist, remembers her mother Rosalyn dancing while pregnant with her, and smilingly recalls Chandra herself as a graceful dancer, holding her sari with the tips of her fingers.

She was also a natural academic, and enjoyed every minute of her time at Delhi University, where she completed her honours degree in Nursing, along with her friends Trixie and Shireen. When they returned, Chandra was determined that she would fight for the same opportunities for other young women in the profession. She joined the Ministry of Health, and having served as principal of nursing schools in different parts of the country, she was offered a scholarship to Boston University, Massachusetts, to read for a Masters in Education and Administration. She was already married and had twin daughters by then. With a heavy heart but with the old determination, she left on a plane this time, setting off yet again to another institution of scholarly excellence to reach for a new horizon over yet another rainbow.

The responsibility weighed heavily. Unlike the optimistic young woman of the post-independence years, this time, in 1966, she had encountered many hurdles placed in the way of the task for which Delhi University had educated her. Across the water in Ceylon, nobody wanted graduate nurses. It was important that she proved it was necessary and possible, and Boston would bring her closer to achieving what seemed impossible. She was not one to give up. She had made it her mission.

Boston would prove to be a wonderfully memorable experience with high academic success and an offer of yet another scholarship to read for a PhD. She was very pleased. This would make it that much more difficult for anyone to stop her setting up a graduate course for nursing. She would make all arrangements for her family to join her. This was a rare honour in the mid-’60s and she would be one of few Ceylonese women to have achieved it.

Domestic compulsion on Mrs. Chandra de Silva was such that she had to change her plans, decline the offer from Boston University and return to do what she could with her Master’s degree. She was never to do a PhD although there were two more offers from the WHO over the years. The second and third time it was the Department of Health which prevented her, refusing to grant her leave, even when the WHO agreed to fund it at the Peradeniya University instead of overseas. All this only made her even more determined that she would keep fighting for her ultimate dream of making available to others in her profession the privilege of a university and a postgraduate education, and to the country, competent nursing staff academically qualified up to international standards.

When she died 5 years ago, she had witnessed several batches of fresh faced young graduate nurses receiving their degrees at the passing out ceremony of the Open University at Nawala. She had finally seen her Delhi dream come true almost half a century later, when she was invited to set up the graduate programme at the Open University in coordination with a Canadian university. She left her job as the Programme Director of the Defence Ministry’s Dangerous Drugs Control Division and went along for a much lower pay, to start from scratch, or “from behind scratch” (as she put it in a charming letter in 1992 to Prof Roberta Carey), the long cherished dream of a University degree for nurses. She was deeply involved - from buying tables and chairs for the office to writing the curriculum, setting exam papers, and teaching, administering, motivating, recruiting staff. She telephoned her old friends from Delhi University, now all retired, and persuaded them to join her in this historic project.

On her last day at work, I picked her up from the very pleasant offices of the Open University around 1 p.m. When Dayan, my husband, and I walked into her office, she was standing near the person who was typing the last exam paper that she was to set, looking over his shoulder to ensure it was being done correctly. She turned around and smiled at us, exam paper in hand, visibly happy to be doing what she was doing, and at being where she was, although she was about to go into hospital to have an operation performed on her to remove a kidney which had developed a tumour. She handed over the paper to the typist, looked around the room and collected her bag, not bothering to clear her desk because she was going to return to work as soon as the doctors could be persuaded to let her.

She never returned to the Open University. She never returned home from hospital. At her insistence, she was at the General hospital but the surgeon was not of her choice, for she had opted for the respected senior professor. Her extended family watched in horror as insensitivity, irresponsibility and incompetence combined in the ‘medical misadventure’ of a nicked pancreas which poured viciously corrosive juices into her abdomen causing three weeks of agony despite the heroic effort of a second and nobler surgeon to save her in a hurried second operation. What was this utterly remarkable person who had given so much of her life to the improvement of health services of her country thinking, as she lay in bed falling in and out of a coma, unable to speak a word or communicate in any way with anyone, her eyes slowly moving at times, a lone tear dropping down her cheek, an occasional painful blink in response to desperate pleas from her family? At 3 p.m. on the 28th of January 2006, her pain mercifully ended. Her legacy however, would last for many years to benefit young women like the ones all those years ago in a train, looking to a future bright with possibilities.

Dr. Henri van Zeyst, once Bikkhu Dhammapala, her spiritual guru while still a school girl, referred to her in one of his letters as “Chandra the Wise”. My oldest friend Kusala, Sybil Wettasinghe’s daughter, remembers Chandra, my mother, having overheard us in conversation when we were school kids, intervening gently to counsel that nothing in life is free: “you’ve either paid for it before or you will, later”. A file discovered among her papers shows a course she was developing on “human values” as part of the curriculum of the Open University nursing course, with substantial hand written notes on the Vedas, the Platonic Socrates, the teachings of Jesus, of the Buddha, of Mohammed. This common stock of values was what she regarded as foundational and sought to disseminate. Chandra would be happy that University education for nurses is now in the capable hands of her beloved students, confidently able to break new ground and one day, hopefully, strive for that PhD course that she herself had not been able to follow, but could have achieved with such effortless ease.

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