By JAMES LOCHHEAD and PREMA DEVARAJ
An important part of our journey through life is to take inspiration from others, especially when striving for positive change in our society.
Our mother Elizabeth Sarojini Devaraj was certainly an inspiration for the hundreds of people, of all backgrounds and ages, who came to mourn and celebrate her life at her funeral recently. It is the case too for others who are quietly remembering her.
Elizabeth inspired us on many different levels. She balanced many different roles and commitments with ease, dedication and love.
She was a woman who passionately believed in service to others and fought tirelessly to improve the lives of women in particular. She was also involved in many different organisations, supporting their development and effectiveness. Elizabeth was a teacher who devoted herself to helping and supporting her pupils and her school.
She was involved with the church and never lost her thirst for learning.
At the same time, Elizabeth was able to give her love and time to her family, the core of her life.
Her relationship with her husband, Datuk Seri Dr T Devaraj, was remarkable in the consistency and depth of their love for each other. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2013.
Their relationship provided a solid foundation on which to bring up their four children and care for numerous others who came and went from their household.
Their home was a wonderful environment – full of love, laughter, music, games, support and understanding.
Elizabeth introduced her children and others to carolling at the Tamil Methodist Church, hikes up Penang Hill and trips to the beach.
As a mother, she taught us how to not hold too tightly to children, but instead allow them the space and freedom to become the people they seek to become.
When her children sought counsel, she would listen, give her point of view and then step back. She was proud of the paths taken by each of them: all are active in their own way on social issues, not least in the struggle for gender and social justice.
Elizabeth had the ability to make the best of situations life dealt her. She was offered a place to study medicine in Singapore, a rarity for a woman in those days, but her family could not afford to finance her studies. So, Elizabeth became a wonderful teacher.
She also showed us that we all have the capacity to do more.
She backed up her strong belief in social justice by serving in many organisations.
She was many times the President of the YWCA Penang starting from 1965, and the President of the National YWCA for three terms (1990-1996).
She was a strong woman advocate and was one of the founder members and Vice President/committee member of the Women’s Centre for Change (earlier known as Women’s Crisis Centre).
She was also with the National Council of Women’s Organisation (NCWO), as President of the Penang branch (1992-2006) and the Vice President of NCWO Northern Region (1998-2006).
Elizabeth was also a committee member of the Women’s Welfare Council (1988-2006) where she was also the Chairperson for Rumah Perlindungan Sosial (Home for Unwed Mothers).
She was also active in the Tamil Methodist Church. She was also an Advisor to the Juvenile Court (1974-1976); member of the Christian Churches Prison Workers Committee (1984-1988); founder member and Vice President/committee member of the Children’s Protection Society (1992-2002); member of the Bar Disciplinary Board (1996-2001); and member of the Special Working Committee on Tamil Schools as part of the Penang Educational Consultative Council (1999-2002).
She was also involved in the St Joseph’s Orphanage Learning Centre and the Handicapped Children’s Appeal for several years.
She also found time to visit hospice patients as a lay volunteer of the National Cancer Society Malaysia’s Penang branch.
Elizabeth was a hands-on feminist and social activist. Her leadership was through her actions and her commitment to her dream of a more humane world. She connected with people through her compassion and humility, her gentleness, her refusal to patronise or judge. Her service was based on love and sustained through her faith in God.
Elizabeth may have moved on, but for those who knew her, her legacy will never depart.
We take inspiration from the wonderful life Elizabeth led and the huge difference she made to the lives of so many people.