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I had nowhere to stay at Peradeniya, and I did not do much to overcome this problem. At first I had stayed in the University Guesthouse, high on the hill above the Arts Faculty, with beautiful views westward, but little in the way of food or even coffee. Ashley Halpe then put me up once or twice, with his usual generosity, but he was in effect camping out himself, for his wife had stayed on in Colombo with the children, after he got himself sent back to Peradeniya with the re-establishment of several universities.

The SLFP led government of the early seventies had engaged in what they termed rationalization, setting up one university with several campuses, with high level English becoming the responsibility of Kelaniya alone. Ashley had had to move there, while his erstwhile rival for the Chair, Yasmine Gooneratne, had gone away to Australia. Peradeniya had been left then to those whose speciality was Linguistics, that esoteric discipline that bright youngsters had engaged in when, a decade previously, it had been realized that language teaching was the urgent need of the hour.

Ashley also introduced me to Tissa Jayatilaka, whose first love was teaching, though he was not on the staff but instead had the far more prestigious post of Director of the Kandy American Centre. He came to us for Visiting Lectures and, apart from in the end marrying one of the brightest of our third years, he also took me under his wing and let me stay at the delightful flat he ran in Kandy. He used to take me regularly to the Faculty Club, where the opposition to the government held court in a haze of alcohol, Shelton Kodikara the brightest and most articulate amongst them. The government supporters, I should note, also attended, and relations were friendly enough, the Vice-Chancellor Leslie Panditharatne being particularly good natured. It was held however that he did not really exercise power, since Kingsely de Silva, considered his eminence grise, suitably enough given his splendid head of white hair, sat in his office daily and was thought to give him instructions.

Things got worse with the General Strike of 1980, which was dealt with brutally by the government. There were efforts to discipline government supporters, most shamefully if I recollect aright Anuruddha Seneviratne, an utterly decent if somewhat emotional scholar, on the grounds that his doctorate was from an Eastern bloc university that was not in the league of better known names. The opposition then struck back with a vote of No Confidence against the Dean of Arts, C R de Silva, a very distinguished scholar who however had some personal problems that made him vulnerable to criticism.

He ended up leaving the country a few years later, though in between he contributed actively to the work of the Council for Liberal Democracy that Chanaka Amaratunga had set up. This rapidly became the main source of criticism of the government from a non-socialist perspective, and it is a tribute to scholars like CR as well as Ministers such as Gamini Dissanayake and Ronnie de Mel that they realized that things were going wrong and that reforms were needed.

I soon settled into a fairly easy routine, travelling up to lecture for two or three very full days, with one or two very convivial evenings arranged by Tissa. Occasionally there were special lectures at the American Centre or the British Council. One I gave was a comprehensive critique of Leonard Woolf’s ‘Village in the Jungle’, at which the other speaker was Ranjith Goonewardene from Kelaniya University, who thought the book a masterpiece. He thanked me after the discussion, in that I had not been personal. When I expressed surprise at this, he told me that academic disputes in Sri Lanka were always personal which, though an exaggeration, I found was not entirely off the mark. Ashley indeed, when thinking of his sabbatical, asked if I would act as Head of Department, because the second and third most senior members of the Department loathed each other and hardly spoke. I thought the idea excessive, and fortunately I was no longer there when he went. As it turned out Thiru Kandiah managed perfectly well, though sadly he went off to Singapore a few years later – though retiring from there in time to succeed Ashley as Professor around the turn of the century.

More than half the week then I usually spent in Colombo, which I think my parents liked, for the house was indeed empty after the fullness caused by two teenagers and their friends in the previous decade. The garden however continued to be made use of by the children of the neighbourhood, a whole host of unfamiliar youngsters, the most prominent sportsmen being the Gunasekara family which lived in the main part of the old Alfred House property, and which had a host of boys who all looked the same, a phenomenon repeated a decade later by the Muzammil boys from opposite. There was too Faris Uvais next door, the middle one of five brothers, and the two younger Pathmanathans from down the road, though they were now young executives in the burgeoning business life of Colombo. The Selvanathans opposite, two amiable boys who were not at all interested in school though they had provided me with a lift early on before their lateness proved impossible, were meanwhile turning into extraordinarily distinguished and successful businessmen in the new economic climate the UNP government had engendered.

My mainstay though of the old family connections was Sharya de Soysa, who like me had come back from a postgraduate degree, and was lecturing in the Colombo Law Faculty, where she now occupies the Chair. We were particularly struck by what was a new phenomenon then in Colombo, good restaurants, the species having been confined previously to expensive hotels. We took then to exploring these occasionally, beginning with the Eastern Palace, the first real Chinese restaurant in the country. Those we had been used to in our childhood, the Modern Chinese Café, the Great Wall, the Park View Restaurant, served Chinese food adapted to Sri Lankan taste, but the Eastern Palace purported to be the real thing, and seemed to justify the claim.

Later there came the Flower Drum, in the house where my dentist had practiced when I was a child, and many others, but I still remember vividly the Eastern Palace, as I do Chez Amano, the first proper Italian Restaurant, down Turret Road. Interestingly enough, it was not just Colombo that was suddenly filling with restaurants. The same thing had happened in Oxford, which when I went up had a couple of very expensive restaurants and then nothing but several cheap and cheerful Chinese and Indian eateries. By 1980 however the place was full of posh restaurants of all types, beginning with the Opium Den, which I was delighted to return to a few years back. The Eastern Palace however vanished long ago, as did Chez Amano.

Sunday Observer 20 March 2011 – Colombo Changes: Colombo was suddenly filling with restaurants …

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