, ,

When I came back in 1975 in between degrees, Lakmahal was as full as it had always been, my sister and her friends still at university, my brother engaged to be married. By 1978 however they had gone away. My sister was at Cornell after having done a year at Oxford, my brother was still there, mainly to work towards his FRCS but, given my father’s keenness that all his children get Oxford degrees, I had also managed to persuade my old College to give him a place for an MSc, which he duly obtained.

My father’s enthusiasm for the old English universities, which he had not been able to attend because of the War, was not on behalf only of his family. He had previously sent to University College both Gajan Pathmanathan, one of our neighbours on Alfred House Road, and Chanaka Amaratunga, the College accepting them without interviews on his recommendation and mine. Gajan proved a model student, Chanaka not quite that, given his devotion to the Oxford Union. Also, he had only done Arithmetic for his Ordinary Levels, and his Economic Tutors found his ignorance of Mathematics difficult to deal with. I  spent much time therefore promoting his case with a History Tutor from Prussia, who approved of his cut and dried view of the world, and the Chaplain, who had a heart of gold, and in the end he was able to obtain his degree. There was no question but that he was enormously able academically, provided subtle calculations were not required, and he went on to obtain a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

But all that seemed a world away while I was back in Colombo in 1978, finalizing my thesis and having it typed up for submission. I had been persuaded to do it at home, not only to save money but also because my mother had been sending rather sad letters, after the nest was emptied of all her children. She had not been in favour, in 1971, of my going to university in England, claiming I would never come back, and I thought I owed it to my father, as well as her, to prove that her fears were misplaced.

So there I was, promoted finally from the dark room I had occupied in childhood, to the bright airy front room on the south that overlooked the lawn and the exuberant temple flower tree. The house had fewer occupants but visitors continued to come in abundance, and cups of tea appeared as if by magic at the right times. The typist my father had found proved slow and not very competent, and then my mother found another, who was better, but the result was that my thesis was submitted in two different fonts. I think I realized that trying to get it perfect would not work in Colombo, so I decided to chance it, and went back after just over two months, which had the inevitable consequence of my being told at my viva that I had to resubmit.

I had a year more then in Oxford, including a summer which the university paid for, since they had inadvertently delayed getting my result out officially. I made it clear that I had no money to survive on, and was duly advised by my old tutor, in that mysterious Oxford way, to apply to something called the Hardship Fund, which gave me a handsome sum which I supplemented by Night Portering for my College. One of my examiners, who thought my supervisor careless, provided a former student now in publishing who advised me on footnoting, and a marvelously efficient young lady turned up to type the thesis on an electric typewriter, the height it seemed to me then of new technology.

I spent much time at parties and on the river, and helping yet another flatmate win the Presidency of the Union in a whirlwind campaign in which he defeated two sitting officers. Below us lived the future leader of the Australian Liberal Party, who was the grandson of a leader of the British Labour Party. Neither became Prime Minister, though the former may still make it, despite radical views that make me  wonder how he convinced an essentially conservative party to make him its leader.

But, fun though 1979 was, I realized that I was getting old and it was time to settle down in reality. I was glad then that Ashley Halpe, back by then in Peradeniya, having asked me about doing some visiting lectures, then suggested I apply for a lecturer post. I had done so, and been selected, having gone up to Peradeniya on the day the cyclone struck Batticaloa. In the interview room I heard two young ladies, also candidates, discussing the fact that the Department had already decided to appoint Nihal Fernando,   one of Ashley’s brightest pupils at Kelaniya. I believe such pre-selections are not common, but on this occasion the University decided to appoint both of us.

I had a job then to get back to, so I was relieved when finally the redoubtable Mrs Bednarowska – she who had told me at my viva that there was nothing worse than a former lover one despised, an aspect of life I knew very little about, so I could only nod understandingly, wondering what had happened to Mr Bed – rang to say the resubmitted thesis was fine, I did not have to face another viva, but could I please correct six misprints. This was done, in great haste, and I got back in time for Christmas, for another whirl of parties such as I had enjoyed the previous year.

But there were changes. Hostility between Richard de Zoysa and the Thomian drama establishment, always latent I was told, was now overt with the former accused of having gone over to the Josephians. Rohan Ponniah, the guru of the Thomians, was always civilized, but some of his acolytes were not, and much diplomacy about trivial matters was needed to maintain links with everyone.

More dramatically, we had moved into a world of nightclubs. Instead of meeting in the homes of friends, people went out to loud and expensive evenings which I found increasingly tedious. Conversation was no longer a priority, which is why I found Richard – who had no regular employment and had much less money than most – so much more congenial. But most of the others were part of the corporate world that had now taken society over, in the economic revolution the Jayewardene government had engendered.

That was perhaps essential, given the moribundity of the previous Socialist regime. But it was a world away from the ethos of Peradeniya, where I had begun to lecture. And I suppose one sensed then, way back in 1980, when things still seemed positive, the social tensions that were to engulf us all so soon, as Colombo floated away into a lifestyle at odds with the rest of the country.

Sunday Observer 27 February 2011 – Colombo Changes: Back in Colombo in 1978