TRIBUTE | Sunday Observer


Nimal Breckenridge: A different drummer

The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote that if someone seems out of step with their companions, it is because they hear a different drummer. If that is the case, my mother Nimal heard a number of different beats from her very childhood.

Her father, D.T Wijeyaratne, was a brilliant scholar turned renegade. Having won a scholarship to read Classics at Oxford, he embraced Marxism, spurned a well-beaten and comfortable track to the senior echelons of the colonial administration, and devoted his intellect to teaching. An unusual, but not necessarily counter-intuitive, combination of her father’s Marxism and her mother’s devout Methodism bred in Nimal a life-long appetite for justice, an intolerance for conventional wisdom and an appetite to challenge the status quo. That she was given a boy’s name by parents who had wanted a son was not the least of paradoxes for a woman who later was to describe herself as a feminist.

Her student days at Peradeniya University were ones of leftist political activism, which found early joy in the 1956 election of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike. Years on, even after she had come to see that election as at best a false dawn, she would still remember how she felt the day the results came out. Oddly, the others in her closest circle of friends – Visaka Kotagama, Carol Schrader and Rohini Wijeratne - were decidedly to the right of the political spectrum. I suppose non-conformists cannot demand conformity.

Peradeniya at the time was flourishing, and had a particularly distinguished cohort of students given to high-brow debates and theatre. One of this set was the late K.K Breckenridge (“KKB”). My father knew of my mother, but thought she was simply way out of his league. Perhaps he was right: my mother would later say, with great relish, that she would have collapsed in laughter had anybody told her they would marry each other. The discrepancies in their respective views were reconciled in the United States, via the diplomatic service: she was with the commerce department and he with the foreign ministry. Their romance shuttled between “DC” and “NYC”, where they eventually married.

In diplomacy, Nimal found a niche, though again in her own way. Her first responsibility was to promote tea. That she was a coffee drinker who couldn’t abide tea did not stop her from knowing everything there was to know about tea and its supply chain. Decades later, when visiting a tea factory with her children and grand-children, she brought the guided tour to an abrupt end, first for correcting the hapless guide and secondly for inquiring too closely into the workplace conditions of the factory staff.

Tea proved a stepping point to commercial diplomacy more generally, and she made her mark as a representative of the Sri Lankan mission to what was then the GATT, during the Tokyo Round of negotiations. In 1975, she was the first woman appointed to a GATT dispute panel, the mechanism through which trade disputes between contracting parties were resolved, and arguably one of the fulcrums of post-war economic stability.

On international trade more generally, her views were ahead of her time. She was impatient with the concept of special and differential treatment – preferential treatment and a series of exemptions to rules - to which developing countries like Sri Lanka were wedded at the time. She thought it a form of special pleading that robbed developing countries of their dignity, reduced their incentives to negotiate, and at worst, gave them licence to shoot themselves in the foot. Her views were later shown to be largely correct, though, especially for a person “from the left”, they were idiosyncratic at the time. One particularly heated exchange prompted an Ambassador of an unnamed country to ring the Sri Lankan mission complaining bitterly about “that bloody woman on your delegation”. In the event the call was impeccably handled by the then first secretary, who, undoubtedly feeling the cold joy that comes from knowing something your interlocutor does not, remarked “I believe that’s my wife you are talking about”.

One can only conjecture what the future careers of both husband and wife would have held had a car accident not killed him and left her with life-changing injuries, and the sole responsibility for raising two children. But out of the shattering circumstances, she rediscovered a more ancient drum beat – that of her Christian faith, which fundamentally shaped the remaining 36 years of her life. Her evangelicalism was well grounded, much more the faith of Wilberforce than it was of, say, Billy Graham. She understood the gospel of Christ as a summons, to see that what is broken should not remain broken, that what is corrupt should not remain corrupt, that what perishes need not perish eternally. The fundamental beat running through her faith is best summed up in the words of the prophet when he wrote “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.

Amar Breckenridge