Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sithy Macan Markar

wife of Al Haj Ahmed Hussain Macan Markar

It was a world of opulence and gracious living, where crystal tableware gleamed and sparkled and silver cutlery graced the, long, polished ebony dining table, too beautiful to be shrouded by a table cloth.

Here, in this palatial house on Church Street in Galle, with a massive door studded with huge brass fitrments guarding the entrance, lived one of Sri Lanka’s most famous and affluent families, the Macan Markar’s.

Of the Macan Markar brothers, one was knighted by the British soverign. Sir Muhammad Macan Markar was an active participant in Sri Lankan politics as was his son Ahmed Hussain Macan Markar, a lawyer who counted many decades in Municipal politics, being elected Deputy Mayor of Colombo.

In national politics he served as a United National Party representative from the electorate of Kalkudah for many successive tenures of Parliament.

Our heroine, Sithy Macan Markar, married Hussain – her cousin, thereby making her uncle her father-in-law.

Her father, SD Macan Markar, brother of Sir Muhammad, looked after and nurtured the family’s Jewellery shop, legendary for its craftsmanship and valuable gems throughout the world.

Sithy grew up in style, “I wore knee length frocks, knee high socks, court shoes with heels, and a hat”. At school, Ladies College Colombo, the Principal, Miss Opie, pulled me up for being over-dressed. I wore gold bangles, fancy shoes and silk socks and they offended her puritanical tastes. Besides, a fancy shawl covered my head.

Her grey-green eyes sparkled as she recalled, “In those days we lived in huge houses. We had one in Galle where my wedding was held and one in Colombo, which today houses the Petroleum Corporation. I had three maids allocated to me by my doting mother. I was not allowed to lift a hand to do any work.”

:However, on the sly, I swept and dusted my own room. The kitchen, with its many fireplaces was forbidden territory for me. When I was only eight, I walked along a back corridor into the kitchen. A frantic cook and kitchen maid threatened to report me to my mother. Unlettered, I made a curry of vegetables, took some bread, called my three maids, Alice, Emeline and Caroline, and together we sat and ate on the lawn.”

“I used to drive, in purdah, to see my friends, Dulcie and Girlie Jayawardene, daughters of EW Jayawardene. A kindly Mrs Jayawardene always tried to keep me for a meal, but being in purdah my mother did not approve. Besides, there were JR (Dickie, as we called him), Freddie, Corbett and the rest lurking around, curious to see a girl in purdah! In those days, besides being
in purdah, we were always chaperoned”.

Sithy’s face grew sober and tears welled up in her eyes when she recalled the death of her mother, aged 33 years at that time, leaving a much-loved daughter of only twelve years.
“A terrible gloom was cast on my life. It took me a long while to regain my composure. I was reallyb devastated by her death. She died in childbirth and so it fell to my lot to “mother” my brother, Muhammad, and sister, Halima. My father, after a while, married again, Sithy Abbassiyah, the widow of his brother Muhammad Salih. She was kind and good, but very orthodox in her views. I recall that my friends, Leela, Dulcie, and Girlie, came to our house in Galle to spend a weekend. With them came Freddie and Dickie (JR). A flustered step-mother calledmy father in Colombo and what she might do with the two personable young lads. He advised that they eat at our house and sleep at my mothers house”.

“When I was nineteen, my father arranged a marriage for me to my cousin Hussain, who had returned from London qualified as a Barrister. We had somehow seen each other before although we were not allowed to meet and socialize as was the custom within the community. Hussain came home daily, ostensibly to play cricket, but hoping to catch a glimpse of me! I used to play the piano and so he used to send me words of love songs which he requested me to play. I thought, at that time, that it was, indeed, romantic. At his request, I made a fruit cake for him and after we were married Hussain complained that I never made a tasty cake ever!”

“Our wedding was held in Galle. My fatherbought Count de Mauny’s furniture for my apartment, consisting of a bedroom and a drawing room in my father-in-laws house. The furniture was made of ebony and the walls were painted by Russian artists in gold and violet. The walls of my bedroom were in silver and mauve”.

Hospitality has always been a tradition of the Macan Markar family until this day. No friend who visited left without a large gift bought from Paris or London by the Macan Markar brothers who traveled every six months. Thus, the wedding, in the palatial house at Church Street, Galle, was a big event and the Daily News of August 11, 1937, devoted a good half page to its.
“There were hundreds of white electric bulbs, which ensured an atmosphere of welcome. The staircase was a haven of loveliness with masses of pale pink carnations, with the two sides of the staircase meeting in a canopy of flowers and greenery. My stepmother personally supervised the décor”.

“My wedding cake was in the shape of a lotus with tall columns rising on either side of a pool, from the center of which rose a large lotus bloom – my cake in pink and silver”.
“My father and stepmother did me proud with over a thousand guests at the wedding. In those days this type of wedding was certainly possible”.

“After my wedding, I lived with my in-laws. My mother-in-law was very strict. So I asked my friends to visit me at 3 pm and leave at 4 pm while she slept for an hour. You might think that being in purdah was irksome. Not quite. We used to attend the Royal-Thomian match and from behind our purdah, in the car, we threw eggs”.

“I have been working at the shop for over twenty years and the gem trade is well known to me. I have talked, sometimes, for over two hours, to a single buyer. When the children came I moved into this present house with over fifteen rooms and mainly out-houses”.

Sithy presides with taste and elegance over this large house, the gracious chatelaine ever-ready with entertainment for friends and relatives. “I have helped my husband in electioneering, sat in mud huts, eaten off plantain leaves, and instructed the illiterate women of Kalkudah on how to mark the cross on the ballot and the value of the vote”.

“It was strenuous and my husband won his seat, so it was workable. He always contested as a member of the UNP until 1977 when he crossed over to the SLFP and lost his seat. I was totally against his crossing over. Now he is dead and that is the only sorrow I have”.

“I have three daughters, three great grand children, all girls, and one grandson, all of whom I am ver proud of”.

Sithy Macan Markar epitomizes an era when living was bountiful, gracious, and ever friendly. Those days can never, conceivably, come back, though Sithy, in her own way, still maintains some characteristics of the living of those wonderful times. – The Sunday Times Sep 20 1992

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