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Personality of the Week : Shanthi Balasubramaniam

by Ilika Karunaratne - Daily News, Sat Mar 8 2003

I have never seen Shanthi Balasubramaniam without an incandescent smile. At the moment she has much to smile about; as she was one of two Sri Lankans to receive the meritorious award for Achievers from the consortium of Women Entrepreneurs in India. But life has not been all plain sailing for Shanthi, although even the dark times did not rob her of her smile. "I first met my husband, Bala when I was working at the Petroleum Corporation. Although he had been a successful businessman for sometimes; he didn't even bother to buy his own house till after we married. His business too went from strength to strength and he never failed to say that I was his lucky charm."

Life as we know is made up of peaks and valleys and Shanthi has certainly had her share of both.

"It was my husband who forced me, much against my will at the time to take an interest in his business and pushed me into it. He had health problems at the time and made me a Director of his companies.

He was my mentor and the experience of working with him stood me in good stead as I would never have been able to cope as Chairman without his experience. I have been fortunate too to have the support of my brother and brother-in-law. When my husband was very ill; perhaps sensing that the end was near, he sent for my brother who had settled in New York and asked him to give me a helping hand with the business".

Shanthi's business interests reach out into wide and varied fields. They are representatives for locomotives, turbines, plant machinery, pharmaceutical products, ball bearings, restaurants and export of foliage.

'We have expanded our fields in tenders from my husbands time. We export foliage to England, The Netherlands and to Denmark. I have some land in Kurunegala where we grow the foliage. I visit the place about five or six times a month and have a resident manager there.

As Chairperson of the Cobamil group of companies I go to our main office on a daily basis." Shanthi's two sons, Uganthan and Karthigan, were only 10 and 8 when her husband died and it must have been an uphill struggle to cope as a single mother with the business too. When one loses a husband, the anguish one feels is often like a stalker, hiding in the shadows waiting for its opportunity. The torment of grief leaps out of the shadows and can sometimes strike one down.

"It certainly was a terrible time. The worst time of my life as my son got very ill the day after my husband's death and had to be in intensive care with dengue.

I cannot recall ever praying like I did at that time. I had lost my husband. How could I possibly cope with losing my son? There was a wonderful doctor called Dr. Wickremesinghe who was a godsend. He was attending to his private practice and there were 55 patients waiting for him.

But on hearing of the urgency of my son's case, he left them all and rushed to my son's bedside, made the diagnosis and immediately transferred him to Jayewardenepura.

It was touch and go for 48 hours and I didn't shift from my son's side keeping a silent vigil there praying all the time. It was the most terrifying trauma of my life".

As the saying goes 'when one door closes, another opens. Shanthi was able to go on as her mother kept an eye on the home and children and her brother and brother-in-law were with her in the business.

"But I always came home from office at 1.30 p.m. to be there for the children when they returned from school. I didn't want my children to lack love, care support or anything that would have been theirs if their father was alive.

Today they are both at University in England. Uganthan, has finished his first degree at Imperial College and is now doing his PhD at Cambridge and Karthigan is at Sheffield University doing his first degree in Finance.

As I look back, I know I would never have managed all this without the help of God, my late husband from above who seemed to drive me on and my mother, brother and brother-in-law who gave me moral support."

Shanthi realized that despite her sorrow and loss; fighting the inevitable is a futile and profoundly exhausting occupation. Dealing with memories is far from easy. One has to move forward especially when the future of one's children is the priority.

Today, with her children abroad and coming home only for each summer vacation, Shanthi felt an innate sense of responsibility to involve herself in community service and has received awards for this from the International University for Martial Arts in Japan.

She has a wide range of interests here too. She is Vice President of the Colombo Young Women's Hindu Association and is actively involved in running an Elders' home.

"We bought the house at a very reasonable price from Mrs. Ariyacutty who was our patron. Her only condition being that she could live in half the house till she died. So, with her in the house too, we had a dormitory system with 10 inmates and a matron and a cook. She died a few months ago, and we plan to expand on the lines of homes that I have seen in England. We plan individual rooms with toilets, a library, games room etc.

We also have four doctors who visit regularly. I am also Deputy Principal of the Kalalaya School of dance and music which is run by the Sri Lanka Tamil Women's Association.

We teach Bharatha Natyam, dancing, music, the veena, singing, carnatic music and Kathak dancing. The school is open to all irrespective of race and we have many Sinhala pupils too. It is an old traditional school and was opened by Madam Vijayalakshmi Pandit and visited once by Pandit Nehru on a visit here". Shanthi is also an active member of the Women's Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Zonta and the SAARC Women's branch in Sri Lanka.

The Women's Consortium in Delhi, wrote to the Women's Chamber that there were two awards for Sri Lanka an asked for applicants.

"I was one of two chosen. The award ceremony was a most glittering one and it was a wonderful experience". Shanthi has emerged from the dark well of suffering wit resolute will and a cheerfulness of spirit which is intrinsically and uniquely hers.

She has survived the excruciating defencelessness she must have first experienced on her husband's death, by spurring her sons on to achieve his dreams for them.

She has become an archetypal independent woman with many compartments in her life. Her savvy business sense which has helped her success has not prevented her from spending time and money in the service of the less fortunate; bringing a smile like hers to their faces too. A life well spent in service, is the best philosophy for life.