Anil Gamini Jayasuriya, Bentota Beach Hotel, Bentota Rest House, Colombo, Coral Gardens Hotel, Ena de Silva, Gordon Mayo, Hope Todd, JR Jayewardene, Lakmahal, Lanka Oberi, Palm Court, Subash Hotel, Tholagetty Ashram
Twenty years before I moved into the main downstairs guest room at Lakmahal, to occupy it on what seems now a permanent basis, it had done duty as a permanent bedroom for about three years. That is my only recollection of its function having changed in my childhood, though I am told that my parents occupied it when they were first married. Later, in the early eighties, the small guest room downstairs was occupied by one of my father’s nieces and one of the Tamil refugees, a girl guide of my mother’s, who had come to us during the 1983 riots.
She stayed with us for three years in the end, for her home in Mt Lavinia had been burned, and the flat her family moved into after staying in a camp for some months was too small for all of them. She left only when the family, which included three boys who had been amongst the brightest students at S Thomas’ during my brief stint there as Sub-Warden, moved to Australia. Radha had not wanted to go, claiming she could not bear to leave home, but she had to in the end, and is lost to us now, as they all are, so many sacrificed on the smoking altar of JR Jayewardene’s ambitions and the ruthless machinations of his henchmen. And along with them, a victim in another way, was the best and brightest of Lakmahal’s progeny, Lakshman, Bishop of Kurunagala, who worked himself to death in the aftermath of the riots, traveling to Jaffna despite his delicate heart, visiting camps, praying, writing, urging, until the final inevitable heart attack took him away when he was just fifty six.
JR, oddly, had also been responsible, in a much less insidious way, for the long term occupation of the big guest room in the mid-sixties. It was when he was Minister of State, responsible for Tourism, and the thrust to develop the tourist industry comprehensively was begun. A fast forward Tourist Board was established, with Cecil de Soysa at its head, husband of Chloe whom my mother had known from childhood, father of Sharya, my sister’s friend. I still have an exercise book, undated but doubtless from the thirties, in which my mother has recorded a visit to India along with her brother Lakshman, who was often a pest, and Chloe, who was frequently sick.
Tourism then was a matter of staying with families of similar standing who arranged visits to interesting places. In the sixties, Cecil was to lay foundations for mass tourism, down market in Hikkaduwa, up market at Bentota, middle of the road in Negombo where soon hotels were offering all you can eat buffets on Sundays. Amongst the chosen instruments for this task was Hope Todd, from a Matale family of proprietory planters, a long-standing friend of the family and in particular of my uncle Tissa, the first serious Soil Conservationist in the country, though his academic contribution has been forgotten in a family in which his brothers Esmond and Lakshman were by far the more prominent intellects.
Hope worked initially for the Irrigation Department, in Hingurakgoda and then in Kandy, where I used to stay with him in the little house he rented in Reeves Gardens. Above him lived the Muslim proctor Hassan, and below two Burgher ladies called the Benzies, whom I had dutifully to visit whenever I holidayed there. Hope’s house had initially been Tissa’s, when he was stationed in Peradeniya. When Tissa died in 1961 it passed to his old friend Derek Nugawela, who then shared it I believe with Hope when he moved to Kandy. He kept it on even when he moved to Colombo for the Tourist Board, so I remember staying there towards the end of the decade as well.
As children we were delighted when Hope was seconded to the Tourist Board and moved to Colombo, and settled in at Lakmahal. I used to go out with him a lot on circuit, as he called it, day trips down to Hikkaduwa and Bentota, and a long excursion once to Jaffna, when we inspected I remember the Subash Hotel as well as a delightful new venture by the sea called I think Palm Court. We stayed however at the Tholagetty Ashram, famous for its Nelli Crush, and I was astonished to find there someone who had been for a short time my best friend at school, Gordon Mayo, before the more sophisticated concerns of Burghers had taken him away into a different circle.
I remember going down with Hope to the old Hikkaduwa Rest House, where we had spent a long weekend in 1964, the last year of inclusive family holidays before the children started to move apart and we ceased, to my mother’s enduring regret, to function as a family. The Coral Gardens Hotel, I think, came up where the Rest House had been. A few years back I stayed somewhere near there, after two decades, and thought I found the spot by a pier where I had watched a fish brought into shore thrashing about as it drowned in fresh air. My mother tried to console me, with the reflection that such suffering came to everyone, but I was in a melancholy mood that year, having I think just come to realize what the passing of time meant, and the weekend was ruined for me.
The most vivid memory of my trips down the coast with Hope is of sitting in the old Bentota Rest House, on the mound between lagoon and sea, studying the tennis scores of what must have been the first open Wimbledon. Hope and the architects were studying on the site plans for the Bentota Beach Hotel, and I had been told that the Rest House would not exist when we next visited. Again, melancholia pervading me in those days, I relished the broad verandah where I sat in a frayed armchair, the magnificient trees, the fiery farewell of the sun.
What came up in its place of course still compels admiration, Geoffrey Bawa’s concept of a fort, with gardens lusciously landscaped, and the glorious batik ceiling that was my first glimpse of what Ena de Silva’s genius could achieve on a large scale, to parallel the splendid shirts and cuddly elephants I had earlier adored. The designs were by her son, Anil Gamini Jayasuriya, fabulous animals, peacocks and leopards and elephants in brilliant colours that had you craning your neck for hours as you emerged from the underground entrance into the stunning lobby. The cards bearing the various designs became my staple for years afterwards, when I went to Oxford, and the sarong Ena gave me as I left was hung across my ceiling in room after room, for friends to lean back and admire as we had done her work in Bentota so often.