New Horizons – 12 Constant movement


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Most of my foreign travel during this period was to French Indo-China, with which I had fallen in love after my first trip to Cambodia in 1991. I had friends in Phnom Penh as well as Hanoi, with whom I could stay as long as I liked, writing and reading, while going off on excursions.

I had been to Vietnam way back in 1984, but only to Hanoi where a great friend was Deputy at the Australian Embassy there. But I only got to Ho Chi Minh city in 1991, when I stayed at the Kim Do Hotel, and even crawled into the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong had hidden in its extraordinary overcoming of the Americans. I thought I was stuck, and nearly developed claustrophobia but the guide saw me out.

That year I went to Laos too for the first time, and loved Vientiane, the most laid back capital in the world, with a fountain with coloured lights as its centre. From there I flew up to Luang Prabang, the return journey being in a tiny old Russian plane, which brought the jungles below incredibly close. Luang Prabang was magic, lovely old temples where young monks played in the courtyards and seemed terribly pleased to talk for hours with anyone who knew English. I went to the beautiful wooden Royal Palace, and had a river trip by myself past lovely waterfalls. It was also nice to enter into the spirit of the place, seeing an old Western film in the decrepit theatre where youngsters came to smoke cigarettes.

In 1991 I also went back to Hanoi, and walked round the little lake I had loved back in 1984. It was much more tranquil than the lake in Cambodia, where the guide who had picked me up on a motorbike and stuck with me for the rest of my stay, and also future visits, took me to see the taxi girls who thronged the boat restaurants. Continue reading

New Horizons – 11 The old order ends


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I was rarely at home during the two years after I left USJP, not only because of work requirements and my travels, but also because I was finding the situation unbearable. My niece and nephew seemed a nuisance, not least because they were clearly a strain on my parents. My mother shouted much more than was good for her, so much so that I even once remonstrated with her on my niece’s behalf, only to be told sadly that she was doing her best to get her straight, but did not think she would succeed.

Upset though I was by the children’s presence, I realized too that I could hardly blame them, certainly not the little girl, who was too young to understand why she had been sent away from her parents, and naturally reacted badly. When finally the whole family was together again in Australia, she seemed to settle down, which suggests that the trauma of separation is something that should be avoided. But by then it was too late to tell my mother that a refusal in 1994 to take on the responsibility might have served everyone better.

When in Colombo I found refuge at Nirmali’s, in the office that had been used for the various book production programmes the English Association had taken on when the British Council decided it should not take bread from the mouth of British publishers, as one memorable directive went. Initially we had had an office in Bagatelle Road, when the Association worked for the Council on the first CIDA book project, and we had used the place also to house Scott Richards when he came out for various workshops. This led to entertaining stories about what he claimed was attempted seduction by the caretaker the Council had put in place, but all this had to stop when the Council withdrew.

The Association was then kindly given space in Nirmali’s annexe, where she also conducted classes, and I produced several books there, helped by my old Secretary at the Council who worked for us for very little pay at weekends. We also had the Thalgodapitiya girls, whose mother ran the Lionel Wendt, two noisy but extraordinarily efficient characters. Between them all they taught me to use a computer, which I had long resisted on the grounds that I was too old. The result was a stream of prose, including the novels ‘Servants’ in 1995 and ‘An English Education’ in 1996. Since then, I fear, I have never really been sociable.

Though work and travel were fulfilling, and it was salutary to discover the joys of solitude, 1995 was a bleak year in Colombo. In May my aunt Lakshmi was murdered, at the house she had built for herself in Bagatelle Road. She had moved there to be reasonably near us while also guarding her independence, which she had cherished for well over a decade and a half at the Old Place, my grandmother’s childhood home in Kurunagala. Continue reading

New Horizons – 10 Colombo constrictions


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While the world outside Colombo was figuring with increasing importance in my life in the mid-nineties, at home the lights, as Edward Grey described the onset of war in Europe in 1914, were going out one by one. My grandmother died in June 1994, on my father’s birthday, when my mother had arranged to have the British High Commissioner over for dinner. It had been a longstanding obligation, but she had wanted a date when I too was available, which had been difficult to fix. The dinner had of course to be cancelled, and I do not think I attended another formal dinner at Lakmahal until January 1997, just before my mother left for the operation in Oxford from which she did not recover.

I was still attached to Sri Jayewardenepura University in the middle of 1994, having celebrated my 40th birthday in May, with 40 guests. I had found it difficult to fill up the number, which made me realize how out of touch I had got with Colombo over the preceding couple of years. When I resigned from the British Council in 1992, I had celebrated my birthday – and the recurrence of Wesak, in the 19 year cycle of full moons – with a retirement party, which had been a very jolly occasion. After 1994, I did not celebrate a birthday again at Lakmahal, travelling to Oxford for my 50th, after I realized that one’s closest friends are generally those with whom one grows to maturity.

My grandmother had been ailing for a long time, her tenacious hold on life slipping when first she lost her sight, and then when she had to use a wheel-chair. It was odd to see her reduced to helplessness, since for most of my forty years I had thought of her as ruling over Lakmahal with a will of iron. Widowed in 1945, losing all her sons, the last two in rapid succession in 1983 and 1985, she had still maintained her authority, which I fear acted as a curb on my mother. Latterly I had begun to understand why my mother spent so much time at Girl Guide Headquarters, which allowed for the full flowering of her equally vibrant, but much more gentle, personality.

My grandmother’s death, though it left an enormous hollow, should also have been a liberation for my mother. This did not follow, because my brother, who had been in Hong Kong for the last two years with his family, decided to continue there but send his children back to be looked after by my parents. Previously they had looked after his son for years, while he and his wife were pursuing higher qualifications in England. But they had seemed to enjoy this, even taking on responsibility for the boy when, after his parents came back from England, his mother got pregnant again, and found looking after two children difficult.

But that it was a responsibility they could not readily fulfil as age advanced I understood, when I came back once on a Sunday afternoon after a trip to Yala with my sister, to find my mother almost in hysterics because her grandson had not come home after church. She was trying to convince my father, who was enjoying an afternoon nap, that he should go and drive round the church premises, to see if the boy could be traced. I tried to tell her not to worry, that doubtless the boy was hanging around with friends, as all of us had done at that age, without parents worrying overmuch. But she quelled me by saying, with a quaver in her voice ‘Other people’s children….…’ Her relief, when they called the vicar and found the boy had spent the day there, was palpable. Continue reading

New Horizons – 9 Wider concerns after leaving USJP


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The first casualty of the enmity of the Head of the Languages Department was our English programme. The papers I had prepared about introducing a Special Degree in English and setting up a separate Department failed to go through the Senate and thus never reached the UGC. I found the new UGC too less than sympathetic about all this, whereas Prof Aluwihare had been keen that I join USJP and take on the AUCs precisely because he had hoped for a revolution in the teaching of English at tertiary level in the country as a whole.
I heard him once describe USJP as the flagship of the university system to a visiting World Bank delegation and, though I was surprised at the time, I could see how under Prof Hettiarachchi as Vice-Chancellor it had been a truly dynamic place. Certainly the innovations then taking place in its Management Faculty, with a superb professionally oriented course in Accountancy having been started under another visionary, Mr Wickremaratne, justified the description in an area which was just making the breakthrough to employment oriented education.

Prof Wilson as Dean was also keen to move forward. I was a bit surprised when he appointed to the committee to put forward proposals for English another Economics Professor, an older man called Sirisena Thilakaratna. But I found him immensely helpful, able to understand and build on the concepts I had worked on. When I thanked Wilson for his choice, he explained that Thilakaratna was his old guru. Later he became Chairman of the UGC, with Dorakumbura I gathered having been the other name suggested.

That would have been a disaster, for Dorakumbura proved deeply conservative. Under him and the regime he had set in place, USJP ceased to move forward. I had some sympathy for Dorakumbura because I believe the challenge to him being appointed Vice-Chancellor, based on prejudice against him being a Librarian and not an Academic, had soured him as far as many of his academic colleagues were concerned. He had therefore fallen back on the support of the less able amongst them. The result however was that many of the innovations I would have liked to push had to be abandoned.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that, in my letter of application, I had asked for a contract position rather than to be appointed to the staff. In the interview it had been explained by Hettiarachchi that there was no difference in terms of the freedoms I would enjoy, so I had agreed to be appointed to the permanent staff. But the letter when it came specified that I was being put on contract as requested. I did not challenge this and, though Dorakumbura initially suggested that this be changed, he seemed in time to lose interest in retaining me. As a result I was not really seen as part of the Faculty, and could not press for reforms as an insider.

More seriously, the practice in the Universities was that those on contract had to ask to have their contracts renewed. I refused to do this, on the grounds that the onus should lie on the university to renew a contract or not. At the end of my first year, the university did write renewing my contract, but a year later the situation had changed. My students attempted to convince the authorities to write to me, but they refused, and told them that I should apply. I did not want to seek renewal, since I felt that my usefulness was diminishing. Though I would have accepted the offer of an extension, I thought that my requesting it would put me in an impossible position if conditions were made thereafter about what outside work I could do. And so, towards the end of 1994, my employment at USJP came to an end. Continue reading

New Horizons – 8 The pre-University GELT course and a new driver


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In 1993 I took on a new responsibility in addition to my work at USJP and the supervision of the AUC General English and English Diploma courses. This was the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) Course.  My involvement arose from meeting Prof A J Gunawardena on the flight back from my visit to Bellagio, and him telling me that he had suggested to the UGC Chairman that I be asked to run the course.

A J had been in charge of English at USJP, but had gone away during a sabbatical to become Director of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. He found the Institute ungovernable, as indeed many Directors did, until it became a University in its own right, and its first Vice-Chancellor, Sarath Amunugama, found a way of reconciling the various interests involved while introducing some sort of discipline. A J after his stint at the Institute then moved into what was virtually a sinecure in the NIE, but he had recently been asked to sit on the board to choose a new coordinator for the GELT.

That had been set up by Wilfred Jayasuriya, a former Commissioner of Motor Traffic, in the late eighties, but he had gone away suddenly and left it in the charge of his deputy, another senior figure in the ELT world called Clive Jayasuriya. I had had some involvement with the course early on, when the British Council was commissioned to produce low cost simple readers under a CIDA Project, and with Nirmali Hettiarachchi as team leader we had done some very good work.

I had lost touch with the course however over the years, so A J’s suggestion, following on a decision of the selection board that none of the candidates was suitable, came as a surprise. It struck me as an interesting challenge however, and also complementary to what I was doing at USJP and the AUCs. It certainly made sense to ensure a better English course before students entered University, given what I had seen of the difficulties of running one with all the distractions of University life, and in particular the ragging. Continue reading

New Horizons – 7 Upheavals


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In the political sphere, Wijetunge meanwhile was doing everything he could to destroy himself electorally. He engaged in machinations in the Southern Provincial Council, which led to another poll, whereby the slim majority against the government was turned into a virtual landslide. Then, when he realized that there was some criticism of his style – and lack of substance – within the party, he turned on Sirisena Cooray, who had been Premadasa’s chief henchman. The occasion for this was in fact an article Chanaka had written, which was published in the ‘Sunday Observer’, suggesting that the main problem with the government was its leader. Wijetunge however was quick to prevent this snowballing into a revolt, and he promptly dismissed the Chairman of the Lake House Group who was known to be close to Cooray.

He then asked for Cooray’s resignation. Cooray said he would consider the matter but, when Chanaka went to visit him, he found him relaxing, not calling up members of the party for support as Chanaka had expected him to do. His explanation was simple. He told Chanaka that he had indicated his worries in order to save the party, not himself, since he had only entered active politics in support of Premadasa. If Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister, and in Cooray’s view the best successor to Premadasa, was not prepared to stand up for him, he would gladly give up.

On cue, Ranil declared that the problem was one between the President and the General Secretary of the Party, and it was not up to him to intervene. Wijetunge also managed to get a statement of support from the Premadasa family, which was bizarre, since he it was who had sidelined them immediately he had taken over as President. But with such reactions Cooray resigned and went on holiday, and from then on the decline of the UNP was inexorable. Continue reading

New Horizons – 6 David Woolger


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The political situation then was sad enough when I got back from Bellagio in the June of 1993. But I also faced a sad personal loss, in the sudden death of David Woolger. Since the death of Richard de Zoysa in 1990, he had been I think my favourite companion and, in the last couple of years before he died, we had travelled frequently together outside Colombo, in addition to meeting regularly for work as well as food and drink at his house in Stratford Avenue.

I had first met him in 1984 soon after I had joined the British Council. One of my first big jobs was to take a film crew round the country, since Sri Lanka had been selected as one of the countries to feature in the anniversary programme the Council had commissioned for its I think 50th anniversary. I learnt a lot then about the development work of the Council, including the massive Construction Industry Training Project it administered up in Galkulama. The Jayewardene government had sensibly started this when it embarked on its massive construction programme round the country, both Premadsa’s Housing Programme and Gamini Dissanayake’s Accelerated Mahaweli Programme.

It was a great pity the Rajapaksa government did not do something similar when it started its construction programme in the North, for one constant complaint at my Reconciliation Committee meetings at Divisional Secretariats was that outsiders were brought in for all the jobs. I found indeed that the Vocational Training Centres in the North had very few students, so that now I have sought, as Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, to get special aid for the poorer Districts there to recruit more young people into the sector. Continue reading

New Horizons – 5 The death of President Premadasa


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I had left for Bellagio at a tempestuous time, just after the death of President Premadasa, in that extraordinary assassination on May Day 1993.That had followed on the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali the week before. The latter incident I heard of while at Anuradhapura, upstairs in the vast dining hall of the Tourist Board Resthouse that catered to the impecunious. The older Resthouses were now relatively upmarket hotels under the management of Quickshaw’s. I had loved staying in them, in particular in the old Tissawewa Resthouse, in my youth and again when British Council work took me there. But working for the government, and indeed having to pay my own way much of the time, precluded such indulgence.

Premadasa’s death occurred a week later, while I was running a training workshop for both AUC and USJP English Teaching staff at the University. I had persuaded Scott Richards to run the programme, but I think he had not turned up at the time we were told that a curfew had been declared. I saw everyone off and it was only when I got home, after driving through ominously quiet streets, that I heard that the President had been killed – after which I heard crackers, which has always struck me as perhaps the worst example of the viciousness that characterizes Sri Lankan politics.

I was quite cut off from news in Bellagio, in those days before email became common, so I had no idea what was going on in Colombo while I was there. The occasional cursory letter from home told me that Premadasa’s preposterous Prime Minister, D B Wijetunge, who had taken over as Acting President, and then been confirmed in the post by Parliament, was doing well. Indeed I was told that he was Doing Bloody Well, in line with his initials. I was therefore quite optimistic when I got back to Sri Lanka, but Chanaka soon gave me a much more bleak picture.

The Liberal Party had finally decided to support President Premadasa in the Provincial Council elections that had taken place in May. I had not been sure this was the best decision possible, and had indeed stood out against it when the question first came up, and suggested we wait and review the situation. I was the President of the party, and though executive power lay with the Leader, Chanaka respected forms and accepted the suggestion I made from the chair. But I believe those in the UNP he was talking to were impatient, and he and his old friend Asitha Perera, the most fervent at that stage about the alliance, pushed the matter through at the next meeting. Continue reading

New Horizons – 4 The Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio


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Notwithstanding all this new and exciting work, I went away in the middle of 1993 for a month. Dorakumbura, by now Vice-Chancellor, was not pleased, but I had confidence in the new staff I had recruited and the systems now in place. It was good to give them a chance to work on their own, but of course the principal reason for going away was entirely selfish, namely that I had received an honour that I felt could not be turned down.

This was a residency at the Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio, on the Italian lakes. The Villa Serbelloni, as it is called, provides a month’s board and lodging, in a beautiful setting, to scholars and artists to get on with their work as they please. Initially it was mainly Americans who participated, but gradually other Westerners too were accepted, and in the nineties there was a conscious effort to expand the pool of beneficiaries to include the Third World too. This meant that one could apply to have one’s airfare paid, and also receive a small stipend. This helped with additional costs, such as travel before and after, and the occasional trip down to the village or excursion on the lake.

I was introduced to the programme by an enterprising American academic called Bruce King, to whose book on the Commonwealth Novel in English I had contributed the chapter on Sri Lanka. It turned out that I was in fact the first Sri Lankan to go to Bellagio, though Michael Ondaatje had been there a couple of years earlier and Yasmine Gooneratne was to follow. I was also happy to introduce Jean Arasanayagam to the programme, though I am not sure that anyone else resident in this country has participated since.

I took advantage of the trip also to attend the Conference of the European branch of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. I had been to the triennial international ACLALS Conferences previously, in Singapore and Canterbury and most recently in Jamaica, and by then I was seen as an old hand. So the ebullient Austrian who was organizing the European Branch Conference the next year was able to sponsor my attendance. Continue reading

New Horizons – 3 Belihuloya and Buttala


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I also much relished in my new job the opportunities I had to travel outside Colombo, to explore again and again what I had once described as the widest range of beauty to be found in the smallest compass in the whole world.

I had got used to frequent travel in my last years at the British Council, first for the office on the Furniture Project which had been started for the North and East soon after the Indo-Lankan Accord. When that unraveled, we had persuaded the Overseas Development Administration to transfer the funds to two other Districts, in addition to Amparai, which remained comparatively safe for travel.

The two selected, because of their proximity to the East, were Matale and Matara. I was able therefore to drop in frequently on my Aunt Ena in Aluwihare and on my father’s brother and his wife in Getamanna. But I also stayed often in Resthouses, and grew to love what I saw as their unity in diversity. The country had a range at different levels of comfort and cleanliness, ranging from the dingy old one at Mahiyangana to the lovely new one in the same city, on the bank of the Mahaweli. I loved too the little ones, at Batulu Oya, and Weerawila overlooking the reservoir, and Anamaduwa looking over paddy fields when Chandrika first changed the clocks and the evening stretched out for ages, as I remembered from Summer Time at Oxford. Continue reading