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Outside Colombo too things had changed by the mid-seventies, as the privileges of those who had enjoyed them before were reduced. In some respects this was obviously a good thing, but in others the new privileged class that emerged was that of the politicians and their associates and, even more often than in the past, privilege tended to be abused. Under the United Front government there was at least the possibility of rejection at the polls, so that there were – or should have been – some restraints on licence. With the practices introduced by Jayewardene however, not only his zany electoral system, but also the manner in which he avoided elections altogether for over a decade, there was no possibility of relief for the people from some at least of those who abused them.

The least deserving of the hardest hit were the Civil Servants. The breed was in any case dying, with the amalgamation of the old elite cadets into an Administrative Service in the sixties. But, whereas this was intended to promote merit that had not been recognized sufficiently earlier, it contributed even more to the politicization of the service. Though one still finds excellence, the systems of training collapsed, the ability to communicate effectively in more than one language diminished – with disastrous results for the nation building we had not even attempted since independence – and the prestige attached to positions, and hence their authority, were woefully eroded.

One of the most prominent victims of the new approach was W J Fernando, who had been Government Agent in Kandy during the sixties, when I had spent many happy days staying in the Lodge which was his official residence. It is now the official residence of the Governor of the Central Province, but the annexe, which in WJ’s time housed the master and main guest bedrooms, is now the Governor’s office. Gone I suppose are the days when an expansive host can entertain several guests, allowing the schoolboy son of a friend to rub shoulders with Prof and Mrs Sarachchandra, the Speaker, a former Prime Minister, and also read undisturbed in a remote corner of the house when formal events were occurring.

WJ had been transferred summarily when the United Front government was formed in 1970, to Moneragala, where I gathered he had held out unflinchingly in the residence during the 1971 insurgency, when those parts of the country were in serious danger of being taken over by the JVP. By 1975 however he had thrown in the towel, and retired, and was ensconced in Talawakelle as Chairman of the Tea Research Institute. I stayed there with my friends from Oxford, on the first leg of a grand tour, and he had no problems about the couple sharing a room even though they were not married, not a privilege they enjoyed at home where my grandmother – and indeed my mother – had very strong notions about right and wrong.

WJ was an excellent host, but I realized that the days of unbridled plenty were over, at least on the estates. I had been spoiled in the sixties, when I stayed with perhaps the most stylish of Sri Lankan planters, Derrick Nugawela, at Kirk Oswald, the flagship estate of the British company for which he worked. Liveried staff, silver salvers, log fires, were obviously gone forever now.

The change was even more marked at ‘Old Place’ in Kurunegala, my grandmother’s home, where her brother Leo had lived with his daughter Lakshmi and his older sister Ida. The latter, blind and with a Burgher companion, occupied the east side of the north wing, and the other two the rest of the house. It was true that, during the sixties, finding servants had become more and more difficult, but I was still not quite prepared for what I found.

Leo had died in 1971, shortly after I left for Oxford, and Ida a few months later. Lakshmi stayed on in the large, rambling house, managing her estates, killing the occasional snake, coming to Colombo by bus more often than not, a far cry from the days when she and her father rode in state in their Humber Hawk. In 1975 I think she still had some resident help at home, but by the mid-eighties, when she finally moved to Colombo, she was managing practically on her own. She used to claim, when we wondered how she survived by herself, that she was protected by the ghosts of her ancestors. Perhaps this was true, because, a few years after she moved to Colombo, she was killed, by one of the drivers she used to hire through the Automobile Association.

In 1975, with all her difficulties, she was an excellent hostess, producing a dinner that rivaled those of the experienced cooks ‘Old Place’ had had in my early childhood, one for rice and curry at lunch, the other for dinners and delicacies at teatime. But the house remained shuttered except when essential, and the north wing had obviously lain unused for years. It would decay rapidly over the next few years, before the house and the lands were finally sold, for the Bank of Ceylon to set up a whole complex of buildings.

Comparatively unchanged in the midst of social upheaval were the the old cities, still marvelously tranquil as I remembered them from childhood. And glorious, in a much more lively way, was the Kandy Perahera, the culmination of the whole visit for my friends. Having spent the previous four years exulting in ballet, it was great to register that we had an equally exciting art form, in the energetic grace of Kandyan dancing.

But there too I found the tensions of a society in transformation. For decades the Diyawadana Nilame, the lay custodian of the Temple, who presides over the Perahera, had been a Kandyan aristocrat, elected by his peers. But a few years earlier, the Secretary to the Ministry of Culture in Mrs Bandaranaike’s government, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, had changed the rules in accordance with the egalitarian principles of the regime, and transferred the bulk of voting power to appointed government officials, the Government Agents and Assistant Government Agents and even their juniors.

In 1975 he then offered himself as a candidate for the post, and was duly elected. He defeated a Paranagama, a close relation I was told of Mrs Bandaranaike, and her preferred candidate. The Kandyan aristocrats were furious, and doubtless indicated to Mrs Bandaranaike that she had let them down. Certainly she could not have been pleased with Mr Wijeyeratne, even though he had been handpicked by her for the position to which she appointed him.

One of the consequences of all this was that he left his post and emerged in 1977 as a candidate for the UNP, and was appointed Minister of Education after the landslide victory Jayewardene received. In 1985 his son was elected Diyawadana Nilame, after a campaign which Richard de Zoysa and I, putting on our Dickens show at the Queen’s Hotel, were privileged to observe. The son was re-elected in 1995, but ten years later he lost to someone from Sabaragamuwa Province, which was by then my second home. It was most entertaining, after that election too, to hear the Kandyans griping, as they had done in 1975 about the affront to their dignity the election of an outsider represented.

Sunday Observer 20 February 2011 – Colombo Changes: Emergence of the new privileged

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