Some years back I wrote a column for the ‘Daily News’ about ‘Lakmahal’, the house in which I have lived for half a century and more. It was about people though, as much as about place, and it described some aspects of my mother’s family, significant as two of her brothers had been in terms of the social and political changes of the post-independence period. It ended with the events of July 1983 in which both played seminal parts.
In writing about all that, however, I had glossed over some of the physical changes that had taken place in the world in which ‘Lakmahal’ was set. When I was asked then to contribute a column to the ‘Observer’, I thought I would try to make up for this, by trying to capture the changes in Colombo, social as well as physical, between the time in which I grew up and that of adulthood, in the eighties.
The changes were all the more dramatic in my eyes, since I was away for eight years in the seventies. Thus I missed the era of queues and stagnation, as my Colombo friends describe the United Front Government of 1970 to 1977. I missed too the first heady years of the Jayewardene government, when development seemed to be proceeding apace, without the deficiencies of his approach to politics making themselves felt, as was to happen so horrendously in the eighties.
There were however two interludes in my Oxford idyll during this period, for I came back after the conclusion of my first degree, in 1975, for two very jolly months, and then again in 1978, for two less jolly months since I was having my doctoral thesis typed up. I am not sure if I have conflated memories of these times, but I believe even in that first period I was aware of drastic changes.
The most prominent of these was Duplication Road. Where there had been heaps of little streets such as Selbourne Road, where I used to cycle under the heavy shade of massive trees on sultry afternoons, there was now a thoroughfare. I have often thought since then of Duplication Road as signifying the end of civilization as we knew it, though I realize now how important it is to build new roads and cut the time, effort and money wasted on transport. It is interesting that it was the United Front that took this vital step forward, whereas Jayewardene seems comparatively to have neglected improving communications in Colombo, even while enhancing its economic and political influence during his tenure.
Another change that struck me was the emergence of large hotels, in the lobbies of which the social whirl of the capital gathered. I suppose even then those lobbies were used for all sorts of purposes that had previously been less florid, but for my part I was simply struck then by the grandeur. I still remember marveling at the central space of the Oberoi, made a minor detail now and thus ruined, by the aesthetically gross additions made to the place. Ena de Silva’s fantastic batiks, the Zodiac and the Sun and Moon, and another I cannot now recall, hung there dramatically, and stayed I think for a couple of decades before being replaced by what seems tinselly in comparison.
I believe the Intercontinental too opened around this time, part of the innovations necessary for the international conferences in which Mrs Bandaranaike specialized, in the only period until recently in which we were taken seriously on the world stage, though perhaps with similar suspicions on the part of those who disliked Non-Alignment. These new hotels were a world away from the sleepy old Galle Face, where I had learnt to swim in the dark underground pool that connected to the sea, the only water in which I felt comfortable about letting myself go, since much less effort was needed to keep myself afloat. This was at the time of private coaches who charged Rs 5 an hour, the ancient Mr Templar for swimming, the even more ancient M. Julien from Mauritius for French. Wednesdays and Saturdays, du pain et fromage.
By the mid-seventies they were all gone, with the men that used to come round on bicycles with packets of warm milk toffee, balls of jaggery, thala and the deliciously sweet white sticks called something like alpen. The ‘gothamba roti’ men who rolled a cart round each Sunday for the family lunch had rolled away too by then, I believe, and the lunch was no longer a fixture.
The street too had changed. The family of greatly distinguished pedigree on our right had kept its old fashioned elegant twin houses with their small gardens, but elsewhere, apart from our lawn, there was only concrete to be seen. Our neighbours opposite had built in their back gardens, which had been an alternative to the ‘Lakmahal’ lawn for cricket for the neighbourhood children. And three houses had come up on the land that Harold Pieris had sold in the late sixties, the front portion of the lawn of Alfred House, which had given its name to four streets, still known even now, surprisingly, as Alfred Place and Alfred House Gardens and Avenue and Road.
Harold Pieris was still alive when I came back in the eighties, and I visited him once in the old house, named after the British heir to the throne who had dined there. Sadly, after Harold and then his widow Peggy died, the mansion was sold cheaply to someone who was thought to have promised to maintain it, but who promptly tore it down and replaced it with two houses. Meanwhile one of the houses in front had been sold to a jewellery business, a precursor to two restaurants on the street as a sleepy residential area turned commercial.
But I anticipate. In the seventies the changes had just begun. Life was still spacious and expansive. ‘Lakmahal’ still had two boys to help us, for upstairs and downstairs respectively, and a cook, and the old ayah who had looked after me in childhood, and who lingered on. She slept under the cupboard under the stairs, since she had always slept inside the house rather than in her room at the back, for twenty years – and, with no children to sleep with, she feared open spaces and thought the space under the cupboard safe from ghosts.
By the time I came back to stay however, she had moved to the home of a niece, who looked after her till she died, towards the end of 1984, when I went and held her hand when she was almost unconscious and she swung it with an energy I had long forgotten. Her niece’s husband was one of our boys of the sixties, and I believe she had arranged the marriage, which worked out well for all concerned. He still comes to see us at intervals, with news of a thriving family.