By Savani Sheshadhi and Ariyarathna Ganegoda
Subeida Bhai is 87-years-old now. Still she has managed to retain the beauty she had as a 21-year-old lass. She laughed aloud showing us her betel-stained teeth, covering her face with her hands like a small girl.
We met her just after the election because she was so special to us. She first voted in July 1954 as a Ceylonese citizen and on 17 August she went to the polling station with the help of her walking stick and her children to perform her duty as a citizen.
Subeida Bhai is an Indian woman who migrated to Sri Lanka with her husband. She does not remember everything now. Her son Ziqbal Mahammed Meyas, who was four months in her womb when she first voted, was the one to help her recall the past.
“Our Dad had a textile shop in Kandy – Matale Road. The number of one of his bank accounts was 01. He was the first account opener of that bank. Father has brought mother to Sri Lanka after marrying her in Mandekar jetty, Gujarat in India.”
Subeida Bhai interfered. “There were neither passports nor visas. We were given a yellow card at Mandekar and we had to hand it over here. In the office, there was Mr. D.S. Senanayaka and he asked whether I wanted to stay here or go back. I did not understand either Sinhala or Tamil. My husband translated it to Hindi. I said that my parents were dead and that I would stay where my husband was.”
As she said then, she still lives in the rented house in which she lived with her husband after migrating to Sri Lanka. She does not like to stay a night out of that house. She lives with the memory of her husband who passed away.
“Sri Lanka was very good then. Goods were cheap. We could have a wedding-like meal with Rs 100. A coconut was 10 cents then,” She laughs. “My best friend was Lillian Akka who was the wife of Mr. Vincent. I learnt Sinhala from her.”
Although she initially said she was less fluent in Sinhala, she has mastered the language. She spoke with us in Sinhala, from time to time switching to Hindi and Tamil, only when speaking to her son.
“My husband had a permit to sell textiles in Jaffna. People of Jaffna sent me gifts. Once I received a set of glasses. I could see my image on the water when I drank from those glasses.”
“They were very beautiful glasses,” the son recalled. “When we drank from those glasses, we could see our mother’s image. Father did not like the outsiders seeing her image in the glasses and hid it.”
“Do you still have them?” I asked with the eagerness to see her youthful image.
“None of them is available now. I think my children broke them. They were very small then,” Bhai said. “I wore Burka when I came to Sri Lanka. People were afraid of it and therefore I avoided the use of it. People called my husband Bhai Mahattaya and praised his wife for beauty. My husband did not let me to go out of the house and brought Mary Akka to help me. She could speak a little Hindi and I learnt Sinhala from her.”
The son also had a story to tell about his mother’s beauty.
“My mother told this story once. Then mother and father had lived in father’s uncle’s house. The husband and wife who lived in the house opposite uncle’s house were doctors. Once they visited my father’s aunt in their house and saw my mother. They were astonished and said ‘Lassanai’ (beautiful) in Sinhala. Mum went to the kitchen and brought garlic for them. They were puzzled. Mum had thought they wanted garlic because in Hindi language ‘Lahasuna’ meant garlic.”
She too laughed loudly. Then she showed us a black and white photo of her as a young woman.
“At which polling station did you cast your first vote,” I asked.
“I voted first in 1954 at a school in Mihindu Mawatha. Then I was unaware of affairs here. Once, Mr. Premadasa came to our house while he was on door-to-door canvassing. He asked if I have voting rights. I asked what voting was. Then Mr. Premadasa discussed with me and noted my details. Later I received a polling card by mail.
“This is Mr. Premadasa’s area. Therefore I cast vote to the elephant symbol. I could not read Sinhala and did not understand the handbills. I was afraid to go to the polling station. Mr. Premadasa sent me a taxi to take me to vote. I knew only the elephant symbol and voted for it.”
Not interested in politics
She is unaware of politics and not interested in learning what is going on in politics. But she voted for her favourite elephant symbol as a habit in every election except the one held on 8 January 2015. She was critically ill and bedridden then.
She knows the wife of Mr. L.W. Panditha and Bhai was asked to vote for her husband in one election. “My parents do not change. Likewise, I do not change my allegiance either. Therefore, I vote only for elephant.”
She was so loyal to the UNP but she never discussed politics. She only voted for elephant.
“When Mr. Premadasa came for door-to-door canvassing, people informed my husband. Then my husband brought some bottles of soft drinks. He bought green Lanka Lime for this. People garlanded Mr. Premadasa in green.
“Mr. Premadasa poured a glass of soft drinks and asked ‘Bhai Mahaththaya, do you remember me?’ After some time he asked, ‘Where is Subedha Bhai’? Then he greeted me.
“My father loved my mother so much,” added the son. “He made gold buttons for her burkas.”
She has only one party, the green UNP. Then it was Mr. Premadasa’s and now it is Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s. She still collects the handbills with elephant symbol although she cannot understand them. She is a grandmother now. She had 10 sons and daughters. Two daughters and five sons are alive. She is surrounded by 13 grandchildren. Several of them are married now. She now lives with her youngest son and his family.
The elderly woman cannot fall asleep some nights and wakes up quite late in the morning. She leads a religious life. During Ramazan fast, she restricts herself only to drinks as she has no strength to go on a complete fast. She eats after the fast is over.
“God bless you! Come again,” she said when we bade farewell to her. She is still the same Subeida Bhai, the lass who migrated to the island and voted for the UNP for the first time. We pray for Allah’s blessing to be on her.