The ballad of Gunawardena & Pillai

She joined her brothers in 1935 to form a movement which stood for independence and socialism under British rule in what was Ceylon at the time.

They called it the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. The first modern political party in Sri Lanka, and the first party to have a non-English name.

He joined the party a year later. But soon realised in order to communicate with the masses he had to learn Sinhalese.

Anthony Pillai was a Jaffna born Tamil who didn't see himself as a Tamil joining a Sinhalese party, with a Sinhalese name. As far as he was concerned he was Ceylonese just like the rest. Just as Lakshman Kadirgamar and Neelan Tiruchelvam were Sri Lankans like the rest of us. All sons and daughters of one nation regardless of ethnicity.

That's when the eventful encounter between Dona Caroline Rupasinghe Gunawardena and S.C.C. Anthony Pillai took place. She was assigned the task of teaching him Sinhalese.

Charles W Ervin ( Courtesy S. Muthiah's brilliant piece titled, The labour leaders from Ceylon.)
In many ways Caroline and Tony were worlds apart. He was cool and calculating, she was impetuous. He was a Tamil, she was a Sinhalese. His parents were Christian, her’s Buddhist. He was 24 years old, she was 30. Yet the two became close and fell in love. In 1939 they were married.


The British rulers thoroughly exploited the Ceylonese. The 'natives' were dying of Malaria, often over worked and under paid. Most living in squalid conditions. It wasn't just imperialism that they revolted against. It was equal rights for all.

The Suriya Mal movement, which Caroline was a big part of, came about when the masses were forced to buy Poppies in aid of British ex-servicemen. Ceylonese ex-servicemen never saw proceeds from the Poppy sales which was sold in support of war veterans.

Although many Ceylonese servicemen fought bravely for her Majesty the Queen, the proceeds of the Poppy sales only benefited the one race. Just the white man.

The Suriya Mal movement saw the local -Suriya- flower sold on Poppy day to benefit Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) ex-servicemen.

World War II made it tough for the Lanka Sama Samaja Party as the British began cracking down on the movement. The couple fled to India where they continued their fight for the common man's rights.

Anthony passed away in August of 2000 at the age of 87. He died of a heart attack in Chennai - India. Caroline Anthony Pillai will be laid to rest on the 8th of July 2009 in Avissawella. She returned to sri Lanka after Anthony's death.

She was a 100 years old. She would have turned 101 on the 8th of October 2009.


Dona Caroline Rupasinghe Pillai 1908-2009.

They were a remarkable couple. Perhaps a testament to our generation that we can all live as one. We have more in common than we have issues that divide us.

(With excerpts from The Hindu. Photos courtesy BBC and The Hindu.)

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