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Clara Motwani

By Renuka Sadanandan - Sunday Times Jan 7 2007

When Goolbai Gunasekara first told her mother, renowned educationist Clara Motwani that she was going to write about her life, Mrs. Motwani, she recalls, looked alarmed. “She knew my propensity for exaggeration,” Goolbai laughs, “and she warned me about three things.”

“Don’t write anything to hurt anyone; don’t write anything about someone who can’t hit back, and lastly, don’t exaggerate, she said.”

Both the editor of Goolbai’s book Yasmine Gooneratne and publisher Vijitha Yapa had some reservations about the first stricture, protesting that it made ‘everything seem almost too perfect’, Goolbai says, but she is glad indeed that she has abided by her mother’s wishes.

Mother and daughter: Clara and Goolbai

‘Chosen Ground –The Clara Motwani Saga’, Goolbai’s book on her mother is finally ready, after many years of writing and will be launched this Wednesday, January 10. Both a historical record of a woman who made a significant contribution to education in pre and post independent Ceylon, it is also a family saga, the story of a committed and courageous young American who on her honeymoon, albeit a belated one, decided to accept an offer to teach in a foreign land and liking it so much, stayed on and established her family’s roots here, in the process also moulding the destinies of many generations in this land.

Goolbai recollects how she had begun the book more than a decade ago, full of enthusiasm and sailed through the first nine chapters only to find that she needed more research to complete it. “I was relying entirely on my memory which was not a good thing.” And so began a long process of collecting information about her parents, sifting through old documents and speaking to many who had known her mother over the years.

And so we have a fascinating candid portrait: both the official side of Clara as a firm yet understanding young principal sometimes given to playing God, and the private Clara, the gentle young wife and mother, a Theosophist and complete vegetarian, who had an intense fear of cats.

If unearthing the records of her mother was somewhat time-consuming, much more difficult to research Goolbai says was her father. “He only comes out in the book in relation to us.” What is little known in Sri Lanka was that Dr. Kewal Motwani was a man of great intellect, a brilliant Professor of Sociology, who was widely sought after both in Asia and America and credited as being the one who introduced sociology to his native India.Clara and Kewal Motwani met in the US, while he was at Yale and she studying languages and music at the University of Iowa. He transferred from Yale to be near her and they married at the time of the Wall Street crash, Kewal insisting that his Kentucky-born, convent-educated young wife, just 19 at the time, continue her studies, and do her Master’s in education. “The British will go,” he predicted, “and India’s schools and colleges will need qualified Principals,” Goolbai records in the book.

Goolbai today

“They couldn’t afford to live together and so kept their marriage a secret on campus. It was only after some four years that they left America to visit India,” Goolbai says. “Father felt that Mother would adjust to the East if they took what was literally a slow boat to China, and then slowly sailed their way round Japan, Indonesia, Malaya and Sri Lanka, arriving eventually in Karachi (India)…..”

And as fate would have it, when they happened to stop over in Colombo, Clara Motwani, then just 23, was literally waylaid by Sir Baron Jayatilleka with whom the young couple were to have tea and offered the post of Principal of Visakha Vidyalaya.

This episode is vividly described in the book. “On arrival in Colombo, Father, as was the custom of the day, placed his visiting cards along with Mother’s on a tray at the entrance to Sir Baron’s palatial home in Colombo.

“Sir Baron gave them a cursory glance and then looked again, quite riveted by what he saw. It became a family joke as to whether Sir Baron actually saw Mother herself or whether he only saw those magical letters after her name - ‘M.A. Education’.

“Dr. Motwani,” he said, “turning his considerable persuasive charm in Father’s direction. “You are not even settled in Karachi. Your guardian tells me you are going soon on lecture tours. Why don’t you leave your wife with me in Ceylon? She could join you at the end of your two-year stint?”

And so it came to be, not two years, but a lifetime in Ceylon. When later the children asked their father how he made up his mind, “Well, I hardly had a say in the matter,” he would answer. “Your Mother took one look at the island and recognized her home.”

One week after meeting with Sir Baron, Clara Motwani clad in a white sari, “tall, gentle and lovely, but rather shy” walked through Visakha’s gates. The outgoing British principal meeting her for the first time in her office, made what Goolbai deems a natural mistake.

“Are you a new girl? She asked Mother, whose confidence was already pretty shaky. “Er- no,” Mother quavered. “I’m the new Principal.”

How then did a young convent-educated American transform Visakha into the premier Buddhist institution for girls, effecting changes with such unerring judgement, and negotiating often difficult situations with grace and authority? Goolbai sees it as her Theosophist background and her great sense of duty.

Visakha was the love of her life, says Goolbai, adding that though Clara subsequently ran Musaeus College, Hindu Girls’ College, Jaffna, Sujatha Vidyalaya and founded Buddhist Ladies’ College, Visakha was her first home away from home and where Goolbai herself was born, the Principal then residing in one wing of the hostel.

But it was no easy path. “Mother found Visakha a somewhat demoralized school,” Goolbai writes. With the exception of a few brave pioneers, like the Hewavitarna family, the Amarasuriyas, the de Silvas, the de Soyzas, the Gunasekeras, the Samarakkodys, the Weerasooriyas and others, Buddhist parents preferred to send their children to the fashionable missionary institutions. The school had had 0% results for two consecutive years.

“My mother was quite authoritarian in her approach to her students, but she really cared. Every student who has gone through her hands loved her. Their parents too had utmost faith in her,” she says.

Clara was an innovative principal and her 12 years at Visakha are remembered for many significant moves such as the teaching of Buddhism (observing sil on Poya days was a must) and Home Science (tying up with the Lady Irwin College, a well known University of Home Science in Delhi) and the introduction of a modified version of the American Dalton Plan of teaching where teachers made detailed plans of their subject and students were given these, in the form of six-week advance schedules, to proceed at a pace suited to their individual skills.

Dr. Kewal Motwani: Goolbai’s father

When World War 2 broke out, Visakha like many other Colombo schools opted for a branch in the hills, renting out D.G. K. Jayakody’s sprawling Bandarawela house ‘Chandragiri’. Those were heady days for the young Visakhians, who even now, decades later, cherish memories of three-mile walks, movies at rickety old cinema halls, cross-country treks and train rides to neighbouring townships; and also their close personal relationship with their principal who though shuttling between Colombo and Bandarawela still found time to tuck a young one into bed.

Change came when on her husband’s insistence and after a minor disagreement with the school board, Clara Motwani resigned, taking the family to Ootacamund in India to join him, but not before she had ensured Visakha was in safe hands by pushing for the appointment of Susan George Pulimood, an Indian Christian as her successor.

In Ooty, Clara with time on her hands, discovered a flair for bridge and mahjong and the family enjoyed a full social life, with friends such as renowned dancers Ram Gopal and Rukmani Arundale, but in her heart she yearned for Ceylon and when she was offered the principalship of Hindu Ladies’ College in Jaffna, her husband was resigned to the inevitable. “If Karma ordains that your Mother must live in Ceylon, who am I, a mere husband, to thwart the fates!” Goolbai quotes him as saying in the book.
It is this inextricable link with this country that both Kewal and Clara Motwani felt so strongly that Goolbai herself has taken so much to heart. Daughter of a Sindhi father and an American mother, she has never thought of herself as anything other than Sri Lankan and delights in affirming this. “I’m not Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher,” she says emphatically; but as her mother so wonderfully put it “proudly Sri Lankan”.

And so Clara and Goolbai headed back to Ceylon. Goolbai writes of their years in Jaffna, ‘lovely days of quietness and harmony’ with great nostalgia - “It was a time of peace. It was a time of friendship… Sincerity, simplicity and affection were what Mother found in Jaffna. She had expected immovable bastions of conservatism. She found instead pliable minds and flexible brains. Jaffna has always remained a special place to the Motwanis.”

‘Chosen Ground’ covers much more of Clara Motwani’s invaluable contribution to education in this country. At Musaeus College, among her many achievements, Goolbai counts her insistence on the school remaining private when others opted to join the Government system as Visakha did.

What makes the book an irresistible read are also the personalities that colour its pages. The book is a veritable who’s who of Colombo society with Goolbai bringing in not just the students and dear friends like Maya Senanayake, Kumari Jayewardena and Suriya Wickremasinghe (all four offspring of Western mothers and Asian fathers – to whom she devotes a chapter in the book titled ‘An Unorthodox Heritage’) but also fascinating anecdotes of parents who crossed her mother’s path, some of whose grandchildren are now in her charge at Asian International School, in the ‘circle of life’ as she puts it. Far too many to mention in such limited space, they bring the book alive; the mischievous schoolgirls, the conservative parents who thought their daughters did not really need an education, merely a good marriage and the famous personalities all of whom Clara Motwani met with tact and sincerity.

For Goolbai, an educationist of repute herself and Principal of Asian International School, the book is also a personal memoir. “I tried to portray her as she really was… apart from being a great educationist she was also a very good parent. She was with us perhaps for only two hours a days, but those two hours really mattered,” Goolbai says, adding that this is why she doesn’t accept it when parents today tell her they have no time for their children. “In fact, my sister and I used to think that the worries and problems of her schoolchildren came before us for when she came home from school, we would often hear her talking about some child to my father, wondering what to do. But over our own problems, she was quite confident that we would follow her dictates and we did.”

Clara Motwani died peacefully in 1989 at the age of 80 in Goolbai’s home, having received many honours in her lifetime, including the Deshabandu and Zonta award for education. The John Kotelawela government had very early given her ‘distinguished citizenship’ long before dual citizenship came into being and the country paid tribute to a great educationist who in her serene, yet indomitable style had shaped the destinies of many. In her Independence Day address in 1998, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga recognized her contribution, saying that ‘Leaders like Doreen Wickramasinghe, Marie Musaeus Higgins and Clara Motwani are the unsung heroes of our freedom struggles’.

Blessed with a warm and witty writing style, Goolbai has many books to her name, both humourous stories and textbooks, but perhaps ‘Chosen Ground’, her very personal and often poignant tribute to an inspirational and beloved mother, will remain closest to her heart.

“Are you a new girl? She asked Mother, whose confidence was already pretty shaky. “Er- no,” Mother quavered. “I’m the new Principal.”

How then did a young convent-educated American transform Visakha into the premier Buddhist institution for girls, effecting changes with such unerring judgement, and negotiating often difficult situations with grace and authority? Goolbai sees it as her Theosophist background and her great sense of duty.

Visakha was the love of her life, says Goolbai, adding that though Clara subsequently ran Musaeus College, Hindu Girls’ College, Jaffna, Sujatha Vidyalaya and founded Buddhist Ladies’ College, Visakha was her first home away from home and where Goolbai herself was born, the Principal then residing in one wing of the hostel.

But it was no easy path. “Visakha, was then, a somewhat demoralized school,” Goolbai writes. “With the exception of a few brave pioneers, like the Hewavitarna family, the Amarasuriyas, the de Silvas, the de Soyzas, the Gunasekeras, the Samarakkodys, the Weerasooriyas and others, Buddhist parents preferred to send their children to the fashionable missionary institutions. The school had had 0% results for two consecutive years.”

“My mother was quite authoritarian in her approach to her students, but she really cared. Every student who had gone through her hands loved her. Their parents too had utmost faith in her, she says.”

Clara was an innovative principal and her 12 years at Visakha are remembered for many pioneering steps - the teaching of Buddhism (observing sil on Poya days was a must), Home Science (tying up with the Lady Irwin College, a well known University of Home Science in Delhi) and the introduction of a modified version of the American Dalton Plan of teaching where teachers made detailed plans of their subject and students given these, in the form of six-week advance schedules, to proceed at a pace suited to their individual skills.