Lessons From My Mangala Mamma

  • How a Fashion Designer Can Become a Finance Minister

Mammi had many achievements in the telecom sector. My favorite of these was the installment of dial-up in my parents' home, a personal windfall. When I was old enough to access a search engine I browsed my way through the good, bad, and mean spirited about my family. From both back in the day, but also iterated throughout his career despite mounting accomplishments, was the intriguing failure of many to compute how someone trained in one area, particularly in the apparently frivolous and effeminized inclination for fashion, could have the capacity for roles which were at least then considered the territory of the somber and the acceptably qualified few.

I concluded that the imagination gap that produces this question reflects the asker’s personal limitations and/or broader cultural, and educational constraints. And I contrast that with the great fortune that my family had in that my Khema Atthamma, born in 1929 Ceylon, married to the original Samaraweera politico (and anti-death penalty fighter), then widowed young to raise 3 children on a Lake House secretary’s salary, somehow shirked off fears and pragmatic pressures to bravely nurture a successful architect, designer, and travel agent (and the many other things they did beyond these titles).

To bridge the apparent mismatch in credentials it also might be worth chewing on this. Mamma’s alma mater, Central St. Martin’s College, is one of the standard-bearers of its field — globally. McCartney, McQueen, Galliano, and closer to home — M.I.A, and Darshi Keerthisena — are alums. Mamma’s classmate and friend Stephen Jones, is the artist-milliner of call for both royalty and celebrity. In a class that had both Jones, and proximity to the one named muse known as Sade, Mangala Innocence was hailed, with a cover image to go along with it, as the encapsulation of the Best of British Fashion his graduation year. A testament to his unmistakable vision, commitment to high craftsmanship & discipline, and ability to thread together multiple points of references from across siloed spaces, ergo: interdisciplinarians. Art in whatever its form, as the artists, architects, photographers, creatives, historians and travellers of my family & friends have shown me time and again, is a foundational asset and inspiration for the doing of most things — including politics. More so, as my Mamma wrote to me on my 21st — to remember the beauty of the world is food and fuel to the very act of living (and if you want a tender personal, view into this time, I leave Chandri Peiris to capture the days of Innocence)

When my Mamma finally moved into the first home he ever owned just over 10 years ago, I volunteered to organize his ever-growing library. Some of the first gifts I’ve ever received from my family and still love most are books — especially those inscribed. So a family member with a sizable library-study room was a sacred luxury. As I tried desperately to categorize, I came to another conclusion as to the secret of my Mamma’s capacities — he read & more so he read widely both in terms of topics and perspectives. And if he was so moved or working to study something, there were underlines and sometimes post-its to mark the phrase or page. I was so intrigued by all this that I’d scour for what was currently on the reading rotation — there were often several. If you watched him and my Uncle Tony chatter about what they did to bide the time in lockdown it included history Russian, Roman, Mughal, to colonial, to present and personal Sri Lankan, along with a side helping of the same on Netflix.

When Mamma took on his role at the Finance Ministry I remember his workweek becoming longer than ever before, running often into the weekends. Understanding that he was taking a leap, he assembled a valued small team of ministerial and personal staff with studied and practiced expertise, and beyond work necessities, they would conduct additional sessions of due diligence with him on the subject area. I leave Deshal de Mel to recount how exactly this led to necessary calls on progressive taxation, some tongue in cheek but also eventually valued petroleum equations, and the surplus outcomes of Mangala’s Economics.

In his last few days which none of us predicted, Mamma was laying plans for what comes next, and in his beaming press conference with his Radical young and youthful Centrists, he spoke that it was one of his regrets that he had yet to learn another tongue of our land — Tamil. A few days later, his former private secretary Amita, texting me an invitation, suggested I join her next intake for Tamil classes — which of course, my Mamma had already signed up for.

All this said, I remember Mamma also considered someone with the concern, charisma, and compassion to investigate and communicate the pulse of the people, to do it as an act of true civil service, to be worthy of a political office earned by a people’s mandate whether or not there was a degree to hold up to it. Conversely, an out-of-touch technocracy, or technocrats of false merits are not much good for a country either.

The fact that he married the two, an understanding of the people’s pulse with a critically studied disdain of selling false majoritarian and divisive narratives as the only means to harness a polity’s interest, is a credit to him.

  • Life is Grey and also… Black & White

I was, for whatever reason, a very judgy child and teenager on many fronts, and despite minding my p’s and q’s, the more I got to know about most of the characters that drifted in and out of my Mamma’s work life, I really couldn’t grasp how he put up with them.

Mamma’s dear friend, collaborator, and one of Sri Lanka’s finest textile technologists and collaborators Chandra Thenuwara often talked of the ‘sensitive young man’ she met at his showcase at Barefoot and coaxed into becoming a beloved lecturer at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies at the University of Kelaniya. How this man, who we too knew to be thoughtful and family-oriented (despite the occasional sharp pokes he also made if he was especially close to you), put up with the power-thirsting, blatantly corrupt, disrespectful and base landscape parliament has increasingly become, was befuddling.

But in reading the in memoriam hot takes on Twitter I saw someone note the very thing I finally understood or perhaps, finally accepted in mid-2014. As much as Mamma was an idealist — because to this day dreaming of something as basic as an expectation of peace, justice, equality, inclusion, & compassion remains in that far-off horizon of ‘ideals’ — Mamma was also very much a pragmatist. And as a tried and proven ‘Kingmaker’ & propagandist — a skilled tactician too. It was prior to the announcement of candidate Sirisena I remember a very peculiar family meeting in which the options available were discussed. I asked if there was a candidate that could unify and inspire, and also be viable as a people’s candidate if not perhaps he should maybe walk away. Sadly we also for too long weighted too much value on the electability of Sinhala-Buddhist, straight, male, & populist characteristics, so that he/we waited several cycles too long to say — how about it be him? Instead, as we even discussed a change or return to an artistic/educational career, I saw no real interest in the alternatives & finally understood that in fact he wasn’t just discussing giving up of a vocation — he couldn’t really fathom doing so as he loved being a politician and knew clearly that this is where he could and wanted to contribute. He loved it in all its gamut of possibilities and despite its shades of grey. Unfortunately, in the months ahead, we would as before, back the candidate considered most right for the moment but eventually wrong for the greater purpose — which is the realization of the ‘Land of Peace’ Mamma himself wrote of in eulogizing the late MHM Ashraff.

So how then does a sensitive young man, with the very certain sense of right and wrong that my mamma had with him, reconcile and traverse much murkier waters? I emotionally and generationally, have felt too off-put and too impatient to try. Well for one he seemed to manage to, whether it held true at the heart level or not, brush off cruel attacks or ‘jokes’ made upon identity either directly or indirectly by foes, and worse yet friends. He also had the generosity to hold good memories intact long after a once comrades’ values had soured, so he might still refer to them as old friend while lamenting and calling out their new loss of scruples.

I think Mamma also balanced out two competing narratives to keep himself going. One is to build the reserves of a distance runner & the mindset to keep the long game in view — always believing one could get to that horizon of ideals. That would require in practice, as I saw particularly when we were in Matara in the latter days of his career where the once Matara’s top victor faced the heartbreak of lost elections as his own father had, the resilient ability to pull oneself together at a time of loss and take on the veneer and the voice of someone who believed that the moment was temporary no matter how long a wait ahead, and when it passed — that we must try again.

The other side of the coin is that he tried his best to sprint as hard as he could when fate was in his favour. To pursue promises and bold executions. Some, fortunately, saw the light of day — from the shining star of the privatization of Telecom, to the restoration of the Beira and Galle Face Green, to the drawing of a sweeping yet detailed budget, that included voices and needs large and small based on broad consultation (oh the excitement I felt hearing the budget line for courts to have funding for video equipment so that victims of crimes heinous would not have to re-victimize themselves giving repetitive and public testimony). Some, particularly the investigation and prosecution of financial corruptions, floundered at the loss of the larger group’s will, and yet, even here he would still try to put measures in place to curb powers now so they may not at least misused ahead.

In her book, the Education of an Idealist, his friend Samantha Power has her own term for this incremental and sporadic laying of the foundations of progress: “The Heath brothers stressed that, counterintuitively, big problems’ are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.’ ‘Shrink the change’ became a kind of motto for me and my team, along with President Obama’s version of the point: ‘Better is good’.”

Small wins are of course a hard sell to the public because it doesn’t feed hunger nor distract from it the way raising false fears and furies at scapegoats does. But legislation efforts that kept, at least till now, Sri Lanka as Asia’s oldest democracy as a democracy, were important to him. Even with recent chants to ‘burn the parliament’ and ‘drown the 225 in the Diyawanna’, Mamma saw a dangerous lie at play where dysfunction and distortion of the structure was being used to argue for its complete demise. If that happened, he feared worse outcomes awaited — which we only need to look outside our shores to rightfully fear: Myanmar-like vacuums where military juntas roam, or the economic collapse of nations such as Lebanon. Instead, no matter how it has been tarnished, he still believed it was better to work to nudge the system into shrinking the damage and hopefully concurrently create recognition within the polity at large of a different set of principles worth rewarding at the ballot box next time around so as democratically regain lost ground.

Ammas, CBKs, & nandas & akkas

As Khema-ge Kolla, Mamma held Ammas in strong reverence. My Atthammi gave him the biggest gift I think most anyone can fully receive, to be loved, trusted, and supported for one’s full self. As Mamma orated in his 30th political anniversary speech, she once penned to him — “whoever makes you happy will always make me happy”. And the fact that Mamma had unconditional validation from the one voice he cared for above all, gave him singular courage. It was Atthamma who bicycled with him during the curfews of the 80s to put up posters, it was she who ducked with him under a dining table when someone rolled a small explosive into the house.

I was in awe of that bravery (sometimes bravado), but there were also definitely times that it would put us as family and friends in the worry weary roles should something go awry. Mamma’s closest have all put in time outside and inside at police stations, courts, protests and CID 4th Floors as proof of it. Of course once out of immediate harm, his grin, and laugh, and sharing of the funny backstories where often those sent to question him turned out themselves fans, made us forget to worry and reframe it as an adventure.

Despite the scares, we have also been proud to see him drawn to fights others have been too politically concerned to tread — often which were the causes of ammas universal. From the Mother’s Front to the ongoing pleas of the mothers of all Sri Lankans disappeared, his determination to see the OMP and SCRM set up, the cause of Sri Lanka supporting its own accountability & thereby its own eventual peace, to the fight on behalf of women who had been played out of their very life savings by a corrupted imagining of microfinance. He tried his best to make the larger nation understand that despite the fearmongering and pseudo patriotism used to thwart these aims, that these were essential and important to all of us. With Ammas, and CBKs, and Manel Nandas & his beloved Akka as his guidepost, counsels, confidants, and cheerleaders — no matter how the trappings of power and the fear of loss of power haunted others, Mammi stayed as resolute as he could.

  • Rebel with a Cause

One of the greatest things I ever got out of my role as enamoured young niece desirous to win her admired uncle’s approval was the idea that rebellion and freedom were desired pursuits.

In trying to be within his sphere, in conversation, better yet debate with him I fought, I tried my best not to be boring — a painful indictment to be avoided at all costs.

I wanted blue hair for as long as I could remember inspired that by the fact that he once had it, but as I got older and realized (with a therapists guidance) that playing people pleaser, even to the cool kids of one’s family isn’t very rock and roll. And so I also learned to fight for my own instincts and beliefs even when they ran counter to those I loved. And what did it get me? At times a sense of being misunderstood for sure, but more so the same chance he had to find his own footing and stand true against faux cultural conservatism and other people’s opinions. If you see Mammi’s friends and those drawn to him, they already are, or want the freedom of being, outliers.

In small ponds like ours, that is worth its weight in gold.

  • Callas, Bowie, Lilies, Kala Pola, and Scotch & Pimms on sunny days

I tell my mother, that when I find myself doing something just for me, that when I am taken with the joie de vivre of it all too, I tend to channel him. While my musician-creative father, and 70s era parents gave me a good musical grounding in the pre-and- post-Woodstock generation, Mamma added to that Maria Callas, Bowie, Lou Reed, discussions of Rilke’s elegies, and my always favorite (first gifted to me by his older brother), the story of Le Petit Prince.

If I got lucky, I got to accompany Mamma on an early morning stroll at Kala Pola. He always tried to attend, and artists looked forward to seeing him. His assessment was much desired and was even used in the sale of a piece to my brother by an artist who didn’t know the connection but told him ‘Mangala Samaraweera would buy this.’ (I respectfully disagreed with both seller and buyer on that purchase).

Given his benchmarked sense of taste, it was a great pleasure to try and find a gift Mammi would like. Along with values, Mamma definitely was my guru of La vie en Rose (albeit he liked lilies white), and I think for so many of us it is that magic he could weave at a dinner table or room as he regaled us with or goaded us to share stories that were biting, humorous, warm, and even embarrassing - all peopled with characters that are for most, only captured in Hansards or headlines. What we will do without our ringleader and piped-piper I think is one of the biggest things I am unwilling to confront.


I wonder as the incredible outpourings coming from either grief bourne of loss, the appreciation and love from knowing him, or for some the final posthumous understanding that maybe this True Patriot or Starman (a la Bowie) may have been onto something, will finally trigger us in its wake, in the wake of all the ongoing devastation we are facing together in this crisis of health and country, to consider a bolder change. I know I was banking on him to lead it, but I’ll tell you what, he was banking on each of us to make it happen.


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