Nirmali (de Silva) Fernando – My Mother at my Alma Mater
It was exactly half a century ago, this month, January 1969, that Nirmali de Silva came into my life. I was a 07 year-old impressionable little brat at Wesley College Colombo and she was our beautiful 23 year-old, Grade 2 class teacher.
My father Justin, also her colleague on the teaching staff at Wesley, had told me that ‘Nirmali Teacher’ was a distant niece to him. That made her my distant cousin. Wow I felt proud and privileged but kept that secret all to myself without ever revealing it to my classmates.
My earliest recollections of her are that of an all-enveloping maternal figure. You wouldn’t expect a 23 year old single young woman to be that maternal at that age but Nirmali de Silva was all that and more. She literally spread out her large wings and took us under them – teaching us, guiding us, nurturing us, comforting us and protecting us. Even as little children we felt the tangible largesse of her heart. And we, in turn, loved her deeply from the depths of our little hearts.
I remember how overjoyed we were when she came back again as our Grade 3 class teacher the following year. We couldn’t have asked for more. Those two years spent under her tutelage formed a deep and lasting impression in my mind. I admired and adored her as my teacher and class teacher. I loved her as much as I did my own Mother. Nirmali de Silva was My quintessential Mother at my Alma Mater.
I remember hearing from the grapevine that our Grade 04 class teacher was going to be a horrible and nasty old spinster who had a long standing reputation of lashing children with her tongue and unmercifully hammering their buttocks with her pet little black umbrella. We dreaded her and hated her. Having her for one full year was absolutely unthinkable.
Towards the end of the Grade 3 year, out of sheer panic and desperation, I summed up whatever courage I could muster, crawled to the Principal’s Office all the way from the Primary Block and pleaded with Shelton Wirasinha saying, “Sir can we please have Nirmali Teacher next year also and not Miss XX”. The diplomat he always was, the Principal smiled and said, “Let’s see Putha”. Karma played a trick on me and we had one full miserable year of Miss. XX and her tongue lashing and buttock bashing.
I now understand how very, very impressionable a child’s mind can be. Those early memories, good and bad, are deeply etched in one’s memory for life.
In later adult years I often wondered how this 23 year old could be so very maternal. Talking to her family at the funeral parlour that night, the how and the why dawned on me. Anil her brother is four years younger. But Minoli her sister was born thirteen years after Nirmali.
“The very day I was born, Akki wrote me a letter saying that she would look after me and take me under her wing and that is precisely what she did”, a tearful Minoli recalled. Minoli was Nirmali’s doll and playmate and even her bridesmaid at her wedding. “Akki extended that same love and caring even to my children right throughout her life”.
Nirmali de Silva was born on 30th March 1946 to a family with a very strong and abiding Methodist lineage spanning generations. Her father Rev. Denzil de Silva was the President of the Methodist Conference from 1970-1975.
Prior to that, his older brother Rev. Fred de Silva went on record as being the first President of the Methodist Conference. Her other paternal uncles Rev. Roy de Silva and Rev. Lynn de Silva were also Methodist ministers.
Her paternal grandfather, Rev John de Silva and his father (her great grandfather) were also Ministers of the Methodist Church. On the other side, her maternal grandfather Rev. George Senaratne was the first Sri Lankan Chairman of the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church was thus an integral part of the de Silva family. The two girls Nirmali and Minoli understandably attended Methodist College Colombo, my sister school.
Her husband Hemal Fernando has been the rock of her life since their marriage on 25th September 1969. They were blessed with two children Dimantha and Shaneli and five adorable grandchildren. If she were still alive today, they would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year. What a joyous occasion that would have been.
My mind vividly goes back to 1969. We were very jealous of that tall, young and handsome Hemal Fernando who suddenly appeared from literally nowhere … or rather that’s what we thought. He was going to marry her and take our beloved teacher away and so we hated him with our little hearts. He came to help her at the end-of-year concert at the College Hall. We plotted to ‘accidentally’ trip him and incapacitate him for life. But our plans went awry and they lived happily ever after.
The couple knows this story. I recalled this story again when I visited her at home in Talawatugoda last November. Even though breathing with the help of an oxygen concentrator she laughed heartily … this story is now a family joke. I never thought that would be the last I saw of her.
Nirmali Fernando taught at Wesley College for an eventful thirty eight years, from 1964 to 2002. It was also during this time that her father was the President of the Methodist Conference. She came to school from the Methodist headquarters in Kollupitiya.
I remember Daddy telling me that never ever did she flaunt her father’s position, nor did she expect any privileges. She behaved like just another teacher at Wesley College. Such were her simplicity and humility. Similarly, being her colleague’s son I was never a privileged student in her class. I was treated just like any other child. She was fair by all. BUT I knew that deep down there she loved me a little bit more than the others and that was perfectly in order.
Years later she must have been very disappointed when she learnt that I had converted to Buddhism (after years of being a Christian) but not once did she ever mention it. She just smiled. I was proud to have Hemal and Nirmali at my wedding and what a co-incidence it was years later when it was she who interviewed my son Rahul for admission to Grade 1 at Wesley College.
Nirmali Fernando had this uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. This gave her great insight and perception and she often took the side of the child. She touched the lives of 38 successive batches of Wesleyites with her love and gentleness. The outpouring of their collective grief at her demise on social media, via text messages etc was moving and tearful. I single out two of her students whom I know well … former Head Prefect Dilshan Boange and former Prefect Rumesh Perera. They were shattered in as much as I was.
That night at the AF Raymonds Funeral Parlour was sad. It was a horrible and empty feeling. The grief stuck like glue at the pit of my stomach. To me it was like seeing my own mother in that coffin. Nirmali de Silva was My quintessential Mother at my Alma Mater.
I grieve. I keep consoling myself that death was a release. At the end I’m told she had wanted to go … the pain and physical suffering were too much to bear. And as her mortal remains lay there, there was peace on her face.
I still grieve … but Nirmali Fernando now continues on her journey through Sansara.
My only wish for her is that that journey be speedy.
May she one day attain the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana.
And may the Blessings of the Triple Gem be with her Family.
Kumar de Silva