Many who come to know about Smithsonian’s Indian American Heritage Project (IAHP) ask us how this project came to be Since our establishment in 1997, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has launched several Asian Pacific American heritage initiatives that focused on specific communities—Vietnamese, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and more—in telling America’s whole story. Each initiative did not present the definitive interpretation of a community rather the goal was to present a snapshot—a slice—of a rich and complicated experience. Over three years ago, IAHP began as a South Asian American heritage project for the American public. Over time, the sheer vastness of the task had us return to the experience of one community while we continued to engage the broader South Asian America experience along the way.
Ravi and Bala Thuraisingham (youngest and oldest, respectively) share this touching story about their mother, Thilla, and her contributions to her family and the communities she touched. Born in Sri Lanka, Thilla’s experience speaks to the South Asian experience.
We invite you to continue sharing your stories with us too.
In 1924, Thaiyalnakaki (“Thilla”) Thuraisingham was born in Jaffna town in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. Thilla is the sixth of seven children. Educated in a girls’ college and graduating with distinction, in her teen years Thilla was a beauty queen. As with many women during the era, Thilla married young at eighteen years of age to raise a family—she never realized her full potential in academia. She studied machine embroidery and received a gold medal for English oratory in college.
Her husband was an assistant engineer in the public works department before joining the army. Thilla worked for the army as well until her first son was born. What appeared to be a normal life would prove to be nothing but that for Thilla.
At age 47, when her youngest son was only six years old, her husband passed away, leaving her with no means to raise the family. She lost her house and struggled to keep a roof over the heads of her ten children.
Thilla worked as a seamstress at a department store, walking 3 miles each way, often carrying groceries and then worked late at night creating garments for private clients. Her youngest son would fall asleep on her lap while she peddled the mechanical sewing machine late into the night. Often the sun would rise and the kids would begin to get ready for school before she completed her work.
One thing Thilla never did is complain about her situation or the cards she’d been dealt—she simply moved forward and encouraged her kids to do the same. Before long, her oldest kids began to earn money on their own and helped support the family wherever they could.
Her eldest son eventually was able to help a bit more by providing what little money he had to find a better life for the family. Through various paths, starting in England, he ended up in Toronto, Canada where he too worked tirelessly on multiple jobs to sponsor his siblings so that they could migrate to Canada.
In December of 1978, at age 54, Thilla and her youngest children were finally reunited with the rest of the family. All the children followed Thilla’s work ethic and perseverance to accomplish various professional designations, and businesses. Thilla never stopped improving herself; she began studies at the University of Toronto in higher education but once again gave up her aspirations for her family and helped raise the grandchildren instead.
Today at the age of 89, her perseverance and dedication to her family keeps her active while living on her own, participating in many community events, writing, acting and leading many theater productions. Thank you Amma (mother) for all that you gave the family without asking for or expecting anything in return.