The knight with the pearl earring: Deloraine Brohier memoir

When the writer, Burgher cultural authority and researcher Deloraine Brohier passed away, we penned a tribute to her. The memoir was published on the Sunday Times as the official feature to celebrate Brohier’s life and work. This piece was written as a personal memoir to a friend, and captures the significance of Brohier, her work and life. It touches on her work’s significance to culture, writing and women in general as an example of a woman who did not live her life conventionally, but was loved and celebrated nevertheless.

The piece was published on The Sunday Times in 2017, following a week after Brohier’s passing.

‘Red for her funeral dress? No.’

‘It’s too bright!’

‘Isn’t it inappropriate?’

‘But, she was very clear in her instructions. She wanted to go in the red dress.’

‘We must respect her wishes, but it’s definitely not ordinary.’

Well, neither was Deloraine Brohier. Nothing about her life stood out as ordinary. All too often ‘women’ and ‘empowerment’ are mentioned in the same sentence, but too few women really lived the philosophy before it became a hashtag, a movement and another over-coffee conversation. Deloraine Brohier was one of them. A historian, writer, and encyclopaedic authority on Burgher life and customs, she lived her life as a gutsy response to what was considered ‘female’ in an orthodox society.

Educated, and more importantly, rich with a prevailing sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder, her lifetime was one long pilgrimage consecrated to the arts, history and culture. She possessed a refreshing confidence in her own intelligence and abilities as a single being. She travelled all over the world for work, for pleasure, all on her own, with family and similarly curious friends, gathering an incredible string of experiences that shaped her person. All this through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, in Sri Lanka’s conformist society where a single woman living alone, travelling and working at her free will, was rare.

She was her father’s daughter. The searching spirit of that great historian and explorer R.L. Brohier lived in his youngest child- Beryl Deloraine Brohier born April 13, 1927. She watched her parents and how they moved about life as her father served in the Survey Department pre and post-Independence. The way he and her mother continued their search for answers to satisfy their own sense of wonderment in nature and human culture, unfettered by the ordinary weights of life, such as children, their schools, moving homes etc. She graduated from the University of Ceylon- Colombo in 1950, was involved in education and broadcasting before working with the United Nations.

Deloraine was the closest to her father’s heart after his wife’s somewhat early demise. In the years that she cared for him and assisted him in his last works, she became the sole custodian of a vast ocean of historical research and knowledge that Dr. R. L. Brohier left behind. This was the beginning of her lifelong mission to preserve some of his works through reprinting, editing and publication. At the same time, she found his legacy guiding her to discover the expansiveness of this world and the human experience, through her own research too.

Deloraine Brohier dressed impeccably. Her treasured wardrobe pieces were scarves, clothing and jewellery sets entwined with exotic stories from the faraway places. She loved wearing a certain pearl set not for its monetary value but because it was fished in the Australian seas by an indigenous people who possessed a fascinating art of pearl harvesting. For Deloraine, her possessions were always special, a part of her voice, her persona and her worldview. She collected such things as her personal tribute to human craftsmanship which she regarded so highly.

Deloraine thought the arts to be the most profound expression of emotion. The painting ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was one she often spoke of with reverence as an example of the power of art to transport us to intellectual reverie. Hers was no blind fascination with the arts for the sake of arts, but a true all-embracing appreciation stemming from the understanding of its role in our evolution. This allowed her to fall freely into experiencing the arts and their materialisation throughout history without inhibition, going from orchestral music and traditional dance to the irrigation heritage of Sri Lanka, the secrets of Burgher culinary history and the trinkets made by the forgotten Boer prisoners in Diyatalawa who etched their nostalgia for home onto their crafts during their lifelong entrapment. Her many books and the editorial republications of her father’s work wove in and out of such incredibly diverse historically rich stories that reflected her breadth of interest and knowledge.

Deloraine was committed to being in a state of ‘wonder’. In our discussions about creativity, inspiration, curiosity and education, she shared little gems of her knowledge embellished with her twinkling wisdom. “If you don’t teach children to love that emotion of conscious, questioning wonder, through whatever medium- history, music, art, literature…they will never learn to chase a muse, to search for answers. And they will always be disinterested in everything including themselves,” she lamented the ineffectiveness of traditional education systems and the mindless drowning into digital screens.

Deloraine often spoke about how she and her siblings were not allowed to sleep during their many travels with their parents- her father gave them a continuing commentary on the history of sites and towns and her mother on the flora and fauna en route. From this early inception into the sense of wonder, ‘living’ as her interpretation, was to ‘follow this sense of wonder we have in us, because it simply makes you happy or because it can even give you the answer to life.’

She was hungry for inspiration, and meticulous in recording it. After seeing how one of her traveller-friends dedicated an entire day after the journey to record-keeping, she adopted the habit and stuck to it faithfully over the years writing down the notes of her expeditions in detail: a trait she advised on cultivating in order to make the most out of our experiences. Her hurriedly scribbled notes on rock formations, landscapes, stars, types of trees and animals crowded her books and photographic recollections that she shared with us. ‘Don’t wait too long to clear your desk, and put your mind to rest with what you have seen. It stays somewhere in your memory and comes back when you need it. Our mind is the most amazing thing.’

She was a rebel, a quiet female revolutionary in a sense: Deloraine knew that the only sure way to bring about a change for the way women lived in our society was by simply going out there and living the life of a free woman. ‘People must see how you live and what it does to you, to change how they would live,’ she insisted, staying true to her intuitions until their time to become widely accepted would come.  ‘I shall maintain’ is also the motto on the badge marking one the greatest honours she received in her lifetime- Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Her bright red funeral dress that caused miniature uproars, was a memoir of this treasured occasion when she was awarded the knighthood.

She was 89 when she passed away last Monday, but she hadn’t even considered slowing down. Her last work on the Ceylonese women doctors, which she discussed with me at length with shining enthusiasm, sits ready for its final edit. Her work remains, speaking to masses, changing minds, uncovering knowledge both old and new.

She will be remembered for her incredible contribution to researching and recording the arts, history and cultures that are part of our existence. Deloraine Brohier was sent off from our world in her vivacious red dress, attesting to her spirit, her wonder, her guts and her glory; the knight with the pearl earring rode on to her next expedition.

The article is also available on The Sunday Times online edition here.

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