Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Grand Sweet Song Of Life

I swear I have a jukebox in my head. In the middle of conversations, certain words trigger a song I have heard. Sometimes, I know the whole song, and sometimes, it is just a line or two. I often wake up with a song on my mind. So, it should be no surprise that I love music. I love almost all genres ... except heavy metal, head banger loud music and obscene rap. And, boy, do I love to sing!

My love for music and singing goes back as far as I can remember. When I was growing up, my family never owned a record player or a musical instrument. No one in our family played an instrument and none of us took music lessons. But, there was always always music in our humble home. My sister Jean had a Blaupunkt transistor radio, which we all gathered around and sang along to whatever Radio Ceylon was playing. My brothers were never short on friends and several of them played guitar. It was not uncommon for them to drop by with my brothers for an impromptu sing song.

My mother, devout Catholic that she was, always planned pilgrimages to various churches throughout the year to celebrate Mother Mary's feasts or a Saint's day. Mum usually hired (rented) a couple of buses and my brother's musician friends were always invited. On our way to the church we sang hymns, but on our way back, almost as soon as we left the church compound and had sung a hymn or two, we broke into regular music - ranging from the popular western music to Sinhala baila music.

I was always seated in the back with the musicians and the singers (male and female). I must admit that I hardly sat because even as the bus was swerving along, I was among those in the aisle dancing and singing. When we stopped for breaks, the music did not stop. We would get off the bus and sing, and, as far as my memory takes me back, I was always thrust into the center to chants of "Dance, Molly, Dance!" It was a request I could not refuse and soon others on the bus would join in. Other travelers would stop and either sing along if they knew the songs or clap their hands in tune.

My love for music continued as I grew up. I was part of the school choirs and joined the youth movement choir. Although I could not read music, I had a good ear and could follow along very quickly. I was the first to take popular songs and write Christian parodies that we sang at our youth Mass. Our choir led by Dennis Ramanaden was often requested to sing at weddings and other important functions at our Cathedral. Our youth movement also participated in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar and my brother Reggie played Herod to my Mary Magdalene. Shortly after that, I played a nun in a production of Sound of Music that had two weekend showings.

Whenever there was a party, I was always invited because I could be counted on to be first on the floor to get the party started. In my early 20s, When I became a radio announcer at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, it was a dream come true to play the music that I so enjoyed and to touch the records from bygone eras, evoking all the memories of my childhood.

Years later after I married, had a son and moved to the US, I bought the latest Disney music and sang along to the tapes. My son joined as soon as he could sing along. My children grew up hearing music always coming out of our home sound system and me singing along to the car radio. When my son was 16, he wanted to play guitar. Not knowing if this was a passing fancy, we bought him an acoustic guitar. With a few friends from school, he formed a band and taught himself to play. We indulged him with an electric base guitar and amplifier. He took his love for music to new heights, learning music and writing songs and lyrics.

A few weeks ago, my son was driving with me to see a movie and I had the radio on and was belting out to Elton John's "Don't let the sun go down." He smiled and looked at me and said, "You know that you taught me to love music. Do you remember those Disney songs that you and I would sing to? That was where it all began ... and I always heard you singing." In that instant when my son and I were seeing eye to eye, I remembered the words of Plato, "Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kebayas and Crowns

I woke up with a headache – I was feeling the after effects of the champagne and the wine. I was in the afterglow of last night’s celebrations and my spontaneous acceptance speech. Next to my bed, the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay reminded me of the thrill of winning an award for telling the story of a global reunion of close colleagues. More importantly, it was validation of the strength of the relationships that were established in the innocence of our youth in the 80s. Despite time and space, we had been able to pick right up where we had left off, even though all of us were now parents with children almost the age we were when we had formed the close bonds of friendship.

Who would have thought that when I initially penned my diary of events since the auspicious trip to London that it would become a movie script that would bring together a constellation of stars. As director, Clint Eastwood was able to bring to life the emotion, laughter and quirkiness of each of us. Halle Berry played Iranthi Anandappa to perfection, even getting her “Yah” expressions interspersed so effectively.

I had wanted to play my own role, but Reese Witherspoon’s convincing performance made me realize that it would never have been such a Box Office hit without her. Her sense of stylish elegance combined with her bubbly personality brought out all the subtle nuances of my mischievous personality. She had won her second Academy Award for Actress in a lead role. Halle Berry had won her second for Actress in a supporting role.

Colin Firth was an excellent selection to play Jeremy Soertz who had a confidence with a soft aura of endearing arrogance that was more charming than offensive. I must admit that my initial trepidation about George Clooney playing Prince Kamalanesan was eradicated when Clooney brought out Prince’s “aw shucks sincerity.”

Yes, Clint Eastwood’s casting was spot on. Aishwarya Rai as Maya Daniels, Jim Carrey as Fabian Rooff. Charlize Theron as Becky Wambeek. He even managed to get Shahrukh Khan to play the role of Siva Ramachandran. Khan had turned down the role of the game show host in the blockbuster Slum Dog Millionaire, so the fact that he signed on for our movie was beyond belief.

My reverie was interrupted with my phone ringing off the hook and my Blackberry was signaling the flood of emails. I realize I need to get my coffee so I can focus on the time differences in the various parts of the world and call each one of SQ Eighties team who had made the reunion possible. This award was for each of them who inspired the story.

We were the Royal Flush … all the high value cards in the same vein. Although we were each different, the unifying factor was our common interest in doing the best job we could. We didn’t compete with each other, yet we helped each other succeed. We shared our successes and our disappointments. We had the best time of our lives – unfazed by whatever was going on. This was before TV, the digital age or the Internet. Our entertainment consisted of any kind of get together – lunches, dinner parties, picnics and playing pranks.

As I held the Oscar in my hand again, I smiled thinking back to 2012—the year Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 60 years of wearing the crown as Monarch of Great Britain. It was the year that started the global reconnection of the Colombo Singapore Airlines staff of the eighties. The era when the Singapore Girls of Colombo wore their Kebayas with pride and the team embraced the airline’s motto “In Pursuit of Excellence.”

And I reached for the phone to call Iranthi to thank her for her encouragement to develop the script that eventually became the blockbuster movie that earned me my first Oscar and the thrill of working with Sir Elton John on the lyrics for the songs. That was the crowning moment of my life because it doesn’t get more Royal than that!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Building Bridges in London

Ever since I remember I have wanted to visit London. Growing up in a former British Colony that had gained independence just 10 years before I was born, we were still pretty much influenced by Great Britain. My father's love for English literature instilled a passion in his children for the written and spoken word. I took this passion a step further by studying drama and excelling in the works of William Shakespeare. 

Beyond the literature, my father encouraged us to read about Britain's rich history and about the time when the sun never set on the British Empire. I was a frequent attendee at the Colombo British Council screenings of British history or Shakespearean films. One movie that fascinated and intrigued me was "Bequest to the Nation" - the movie about Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

And of course, who wasn't taken up with the whole Royal wedding fanfare in 1981? 1981 seemed to be an auspicious and eventful year. My brother Josh married Magdalene in May that year, Prince Charles & Lady Diana's fairytale wedding was in July and I got married in October. By strange coincidence, Queen Elizabeth was visiting Sri Lanka on my wedding day on October 24, 1981!

Fast forward to 2012 ... Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana's son William and Kate will be celebrating their 1st wedding anniversary. HRH Queen Elizabeth II will be celebrating her Diamond Jubilee as Monarch. The venue for the Summer Olympics will be ... London! It seemed like the perfect time for me to plan my much anticipated visit to London.

My original plans were to stay with a friend of mine who had been asking me to visit him for almost 30 years. His requests had become more eager after he and his family visited my family in 2005. So in March, I finally made the arrangements. I planned to be in London for 10 days, doing the usual "tourist things," visiting the places of interest that I had read so much about and then return home to celebrate my birthday with my husband.

And then, 1981 took over. My sister Jean gave me the London phone number for Philomena (my brother Josh's sister-in-law). We had both been bridesmaids at Josh & Magdalene's wedding. She insisted that I stay with her a few days and that I also visit her sister Catherine in Scotland. And then, I wrote a casual email to a couple of my former colleagues from Singapore Airlines who had been living in London for more than 25 years, as long as I had been living in the United States. Iranthi, my former colleague who had joined Singapore Airlines in 1981 responded that she would love to host a lunch at her place the day after I arrived.

Then, during a conversation with Dennis and Cecilia, friends of mine from my teens, I learned that they would be visiting Dennis' sister Rosemary in London on their way to Prague. Dennis had been the choir leader at my church and had sung "Ave Maria" at my wedding. I hadn't seen Dennis and Cecilia for almost 30 years, because I had moved out of my home town after I got married.

Needless to say, with all the interconnections of 1981, my plans became fluid ... I reconnected with close friends I had not been in touch with for almost 30 years. My first cousin Geetha and I had reconnected via Facebook after more than 35 years. Her mother and my dad were siblings and had shared the same love of literature and history. My dad and I would entertain her with excerpts from Shakespeare and she also participated in the  ribald jokes and repartee with the rest of my family. She loved to go with us to the movies and we had seen "My Fair Lady" a couple of times because it enjoyed a successful six month run in the cinema circuit in Sri Lanka. Regretably, After my father's death in 1979, we had grown apart. I was finally going to meet Geetha and her family! 

From the time I landed at Heathrow, I had the time of my life in London and Scotland. I was tourist by day, but friend, confidante and "sister" by evening. Geetha made our physical reunion so memorable and she made my visit unforgettable. I visited most of the places that I had planned on seeing. 

I stood in Trafalgar Square beside Nelson's Column and I recalled the life and times of the victorious Lord Horatio Nelson. As I gazed at most of the 24 bridges in Central London, I gained a deeper understanding of Britain's naval supremacy of yore. I visited many war memorials and felt the sense of heroism of the brave men and women who brought freedom to Europe and the West. 

I was in awe at London's Parliament where a former Chemist brought men to tears and earned the nickname "Iron Lady" ... the true seat of Democracy where integrity is still valued and expected. And there was Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, untouched by the relentless bombing by Germany.  

Dwarfed beside the towering statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower in Grosvenor Square, I could sense his power as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in WWII. As I walked around this area, I was transported back to the time when the greatest minds were formulating strategies to win the war.

As I reflect on my visit to London, my feelings can be summed up in the statement I made standing in front of Buckingham Palace. "These may not be the Pearly Gates, but I sure feel like I have died and gone to heaven."

While I enjoyed visiting the places of historical significance, what resonated most for me was the rekindling of the relationships ... the building of the bridges. I reconnected with people I hadn't talked to in decades ... people who knew me when I was very young. I will continue to nurture and strengthen them because that is what recharged me emotionally and spiritually. The nuances and significance of 1981 will not be missed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dressing Up for Life's Runway

“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” – Coco Chanel

As long as I remember, I was always stylishly well-dressed. And, until I was about 12, for special occasions, my outfits had custom-designed hats. I owe this to my sister Jean, who worked at a high-end textile and tailoring shop in the heart of Colombo’s bustling metropole, known as Fort. At that time, Colombo’s Fort was in close proximity to Sri Lanka’s Parliament, Governor’s House (which became President’s House), all the major airline offices, banks as well as the most prestigious hotels and commercial establishments. It was at this shop that the crème-de-la-crème of high society shopped and had their clothes tailored by some of Colombo’s most sought after custom tailors. Fortunately for my sisters and me, Jean picked up some incredible deals on luxurious fabrics and learned intricate tips on sewing ladies dresses.

Being the youngest, and considerably younger than Jean, I looked forward to going with my mother to visit Jean. As I showcased my newly tailored outfits, I received gushing compliments from the elite clientele and store management while the tailors were impressed with Jean’s attention to detail. And Jean was pleased that although I was a tomboy at home, when I was all dressed up, I looked and acted like a lady and never ruined my clothes.

I was too young to understand what people meant when they said I had a great head for hats. I just felt elegant with the contraptions on my head so I walked confidently. To my dismay, I stopped getting my stylish hats when Leonard the hatmaker died suddenly. And, for reasons unknown to me, the store never replaced him. Beyond his craft, Leonard was also a very nice man and we had become family friends with everyone who worked with Jean. When he died, we mourned his loss as we would a family member.

As I developed into a teenager, inspired by some of the fashion magazines that my oldest sister Jan used to buy, I started sketching designs for my dresses, artfully executed by Jean. By then, I was becoming more involved in social activities, especially in church and in a culture where appearance mattered, Jean made sure that I was dressed to the hilt, often lending me her gold jewelry to complement my glamorous outfits at some very high profile social events.

When I was 18, I briefly worked for the United National Party, while they were in Opposition. At its first-ever Christmas party Jean proudly watched as I was chosen “Best Dressed Woman” by the future President of Sri Lanka, future minister of State and another prominent politician. With the cash award I received, I placed an order for a pair of shoes I designed.

During my seven-year tenure at Singapore Airlines, I was constantly complimented for my sense of style and my clothes. I remember the Ad Agency executive telling me on several occasions, “You must spend a fortune on your clothes.” Little did he know that, thanks to Jean, I spent nothing because she never charged for tailoring, nor did she charge me for the elaborate fabrics she bought at a significant discount from the store where she worked.
Jean never complained about staying up late into the night sewing an outfit that I could wear the next day for a special occasion. Those who hadn’t visited my home thought I was more affluent than I really was.

In the past 27 years I have lived in the U.S., I have continued my indulgence for fashion – with one exception. I have had to “spend a fortune.” But, I do it because I cannot bring myself to wear something that is ill fitting or with shoddy workmanship after I have had the privilege of wearing clothes that draped my figure well. And, because Jean raised me to be a fashionista, there are certain things that cannot be compromised.

"Fashion is a kind of communication. It's a language without words. A great hat speaks for itself." (author unknown)

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Fontaholic's Dilemma

More than 20 years ago, when I became immersed in marketing collateral design, I began an appreciation for fonts. Today, I confess I am somewhat of a fontaholic, obsessing about the use of fonts to the point of being distracted even while reading a restaurant menu. Sometimes, I can't choose my meal if there is a poor use of font and menu design.

I think back to the days before digital printing, when printing presses used dies. According to The History of Printing (, Johannes Gutenberg perfected the technology of movable type in 1458 to help printing press realize its full potential. Movable type – letters of the alphabet, numerals, and punctuation marks constructed of durable metal – could be assembled into a page of text, then disassembled and re-used to create a new page of text.

The article goes on to say that early printers needed both a printing press and a type font – the set of movable type – to produce books. Type was cast from molten metal poured into carved molds; the task of carving the molds was the done by typographers. (My 1981 wedding invitation was printed using two dies.) 

From the late 1600s to the late 1800s – the printing press and the science of typecutting had only minor refinements. Then in 1814, The Times of London introduced the first steam press to replaced hand-operated presses; in 1868 the rotary steam press was introduced. With that came the fonts as we know them today, starting with Times New Roman.'s "History of Typeography" notes that Claude Garamond from France was the first that developed the first true printing typeface not designed to imitate handwriting, but designed on rigid Geometric principles. Garamond also began the tradition of naming typefaces after the designer. Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, Goudy soon followed. In 1954, Max Miedinger, a Swiss artist created the most popular typeface of our time...Helvetica. The Swiss also championed the use of white space as a design element.

Fast forward to the modern era ... everyone with a computer has become a designer with access to so many fonts that come pre-installed with programs. Unfortunately, some misuse and abuse the fonts and make a mockery of good design.

In my opinion--which is commonly shared by graphic designers--a font says a lot about the published piece, regardless of the medium. It is like clothes that someone wears. Adobe Garamond and Gill Sans are two of my favorite fonts and they are often used by brands with sophisticated style. Sabon is another classy font used in corporate communication. Newspapers, magazines and practically every college paper uses Times New Roman. Trade Gothic is used in all classified ads and most forms of advertising. Where space is of the essence, Franklin Gothic is used. (source:

So, when you are at a restaurant, after you have decided on your order, spend a little time checking out the fonts on the menu. See if you agree with the design and whether it helped you decide quickly or whether it distracted you because it was either hard to read or too cluttered. A badly designed menu may remind you of some garishly dressed person who caught your attention and you wondered, "Did that person look in the mirror before they left the house?"

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Fabric of our Lives

For my office holiday party this past December, I wore a black silk saree with Aishwarya Rai's face intricately woven with gold silk threads on the top and bottom border. She was also on the Pallu - the portion that drapes over the shoulder. The saree was iconic and so was Aishwarya Rai. Everybody noticed this.

Everyone takes photos these days with iPhones, Blackberries and a whole lot more. They got me, but they did not get the intricate details of Aishwarya on the saree. Apparently, the lighting and flash reflected against the gold threads and all that could be seen was a large nondescript design of black and gold.

Some of my friends and relatives recommended taking pictures of the saree with my webcam or placing it in sunlight or turning off the flash. I tried various techniques but wasn't able to get a decent picture showing the "pallu" and border, until my nephew from Australia visited us for Christmas. Johann Ponnampalam has a great eye for photography (a family talent that somehow eluded me)and was able to place me in the proper lighting path and use the right lens to vividly capture the delicate details and contrast of the black silk against the intricate design of Aishwarya's facial features.

I have always believed that our lives are a woven fabric of relationships. The designs range from simple to complex and can be two-toned, or multi-toned (or bari-toned) based on the nature of our relationships relative to the complexities of the individuals and situations. At first blush, it may sometimes be difficult to see the intricate design we weave because of dark times, distance or a reflection of our values, experiences, feelings.

However, with the love and patience of a trained eye, one can see the beauty and uniqueness of each relationship. It may not always be easy to replicate the same intertwining, but it is the careful weaver that watches the threads in the loom to be able to produce an amazing fabric that can be appreciated long after the weaver's work is done.