The original guest room at Lakmahal, the one downstairs, is no longer a guest room. It is where I sleep now, having moved downstairs twenty years ago, when I realized that it was the only way to remain equable in a house occupied by three generations of relatively headstrong people. My father had kindly provided his married children with houses of their own but, in classic Sri Lankan fashion, he did not think an unmarried child required a place of his own.
I, on the contrary, having read Virginia Woolf when I was very young, and knowing that one needs one’s own space in which to write, thought I was the most deserving, given that writing was the most important thing I ever wanted to do. But producing children rates higher than books in our everyday world, so I had actively myself to seek a place of my own, and in the end indeed to build one. But long before I could afford to do that, I screwed up my courage and finally decided to ask my grandmother whether I could move downstairs.
I need not really have worried. On hindsight indeed I think she had anticipated this, for a short time earlier she had given me the great iron four poster bed from the guest wing at Kurunagala, when the process of disposing of Old Place had begun. Family lore had it that she had delivered all her children on that bed, though my uncle Lakshman, her youngest, debunked this on the grounds that the bed was far too broad for birthing.
I suspect my grandmother found me the most contentious of her grandchildren, and not only because I had lived in the same house with her longer, and at more significant periods of an independent adult’s life, than any of the others had done. I was therefore immeasurably moved by this sign of favour. To me that bed was the most desirable possession she had to give anyone, and I was so gratified that I actually asked her why she had selected me for the privilege. I can’t quite remember the words she used, and I remember that she was quite crisp in her reply, but it was to the effect that the choice was obvious.
All three of her sons had died by then and, though my mother continued faithfully to look after her for nearly a decade more, sentimentality about places and possessions was alien to her. My grandmother then welcomed my interest in the past, which was shared by only her favourite Lakshman amongst her children, and also the concern about the Kurunagala heritage which he and I alone evinced to a degree she welcomed. I had spent more nights on that bed than perhaps anyone else in recent years, during holidays at Old Place, and recently too when she and my mother and sister and I spent some time there sorting things out after Lakshman’s untimely death in 1983.
The great iron four poster did not really suit any of the upstairs rooms at Lakmahal, so it made sense, after she had given it to me, for my grandmother to allow me to move down, with the stipulation that I would vacate the big guest room if any really important guest appeared. Only one did, in the decade that followed, Bishop Bickersteth of Bath and Wells, for the consecration of I believe Bishop Gnanapragasam, most saintly of all Sri Lankan Bishops of Colombo.
I moved the bed first into the small guest room at the south west corner of the house, where it occupied the entire room except for shelves for books and records and lots of pictures which I had had nowhere to hang previously. That room however was under a balcony, the balcony of my grandmother’s bedroom which lay over the main guest room. Earlier she used to sit out there of an evening, watching the sunset, in the good old days before a plethora of buildings obscured her view of the sea and the splendour of the reddening sky.
As she grew older and less interested in repairs the balcony began to leak, and the records got warped and the light fittings failed and water began to drip onto the bed. A couple of years before she died I was forced then to move the bed into the bigger room, where I have slept since, as Ricky has done for almost all his nine years. The smaller room meanwhile, despite several attempts at repairs, has continued to leak, and then to pour, and great gobs of ceiling have fallen down, onto a carpet that bubbles and simmers and then quietly rots. The bookshelves however remain, the best ordered of those in the whole house, Victorian novels in one glass fronted case, translations in another, twentieth century classics in a third. On them perch the trivia of various journeys, a lion from Turkey, an owl from Peru, an apsara from Cambodia and a melancholy man made out of hardened bread from Poland.
South of the two guest rooms is the side garden, with bushes of jasmine just outside the windows of the room in which I now sleep. Under these are buried the dogs of the last two decades, the Japanese spitz I acquired as I came back in 1980, grandson of the spitz I had left behind when I went away in 1971, and his father, who continued to be known as Puppy all his life, and who was also at Lakmahal when I returned. He outlasted his son, and followed me downstairs to spend his last few nights in the guest room outside which he was buried.
Ricky will lie there too when he dies, at the other end, which was more particularly his own for he spent much time in that garden when he was young. I used to watch him chasing butterflies then, and it never occurred to me that he would grow old in time, older than me, and leave me before I could really think of myself as old too.