Émile Zola, British Council, C Mylvaganam, Charles Dickens, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Enid Blyton, Esmond Wickremesinghe, Gamini Fonseka, George Eliot, Hope Todd, Jaffna, Lakmahal, Lalitha Sarachchandra, Leo Tolstoy, Matale, Narnia, Philip Gunewardene, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Richard de Zoysa, Shirley Corea, Thomas Hardy, Vanity Fair, W J Fernando, Wijayananda Dahanayake, William Shakespeare
Through his work with the Tourist Board, in those heady days of the mid-sixties, when I was moving into my teens and Sri Lanka seemed full of promise, Hope Todd provided lots of opportunity for travel. Those regular trips down south, that one long drive up to Jaffna, perhaps laid the foundations for the peripatetic existence I have since led, whether for the British Council, or to various Affiliated University Colleges and General English Language Training Centres all over the country.
But Hope was also a companion, if a sleeping one, for the vast reading programme on which I embarked in those years. I had always read voraciously, but one day, when I was nearly twelve, my father commented on the fact that I did not seem to read anything very memorable. That was not entirely true, for I still remember vividly the Enid Blytons and the Narnia books of childhood. But he had a point, in that I knew nothing of the great classics, except through comics. Understandably enough, few young people of those days were interested in the classics even in comic form. One source of what might be termed worthy comics was my cousin Ranil, Esmond’s second son, in a community of interests that I don’t suppose many young people shared. Ironically, I remember thinking then that he was much more civilized than most of the older boys I came across, and I would devour the Iliad and the Black Tulip and lives of American Presidents in a series bound in thick blue board covers which he occasionally allowed me to borrow.
Though my first response to my father was that the classics were boring, his comment spurred me to take a look at the real thing. I began with ‘Vanity Fair’ in a small two volume edition I still possess. It was wonderful. I moved on then to George Eliot and Hardy and Tolstoy and even to Zola in a series with lurid sexy covers, though Dickens I found difficult (understandably, and also satisfyingly, for it allowed me the pleasure of reading that most brilliant of novelists when I was old enough to appreciate him better).
I decided too that I would read all of Shakespeare before I was a teenager, and I conscientiously read a play every weekday afternoon, in my father’s well-annotated Yale Edition, supplemented by my grandparents’ older Imperial Edition which had introductions to the different plays by writers such as Gosse and Swinburne. Sadly, neither of the sets is complete now. The Yale ‘Othello’ I lost when I lent it to Gamini Fonseka for a Shakespeare evening Richard de Zoysa and I put on for the English Association’s annual celebration during the eighties. My efforts to get back the book were stymied when Gamini told me it had fallen victim to his acrimonious separation from his wife, who he claimed had thrown away all his books. I don’t really credit the story but, as Richard philosophically put it, books loaned to actors should be treated as given away.
The lacuna in the sets seems even sadder now, for they were great companions in that year of literary adventure. I read them in the guest room downstairs, to the strains of the 3 hour long holiday choice of weekend afternoons, which Hope religiously kept on while he slept in the other bed. I had grown used to reading down in the guest rooms during Saturday and Sunday afternoons, locked in the small guest room when I was even younger, for it was to read books that belonged to my brother who had suddenly got very proprietorial with the onset of adolescence. I had to ask permission to borrow his William books and his Hardy boys, and this used to be arbitrarily denied, so I would take them down in secret and hide myself away. Fortunately my father’s strictures about the low level of my reading rescued me from such subterfuge, and I could happily display my classics in the large and airy guest room, with Hope’s cheerful snoring to keep me company.
Hope was one of three bachelors who were great friends of the family. He and the Civil Servant C Mylvaganam, then Philip Gunewardene’s Director of Industries, were frequent visitors at home. Coincidentally, they both hailed originally from Matale, though Myla was basically my father’s friend from his university days, whereas Hope’s connection was initially through the Wickremesinghes.
The third bachelor friend was W J Fernando, at that time Government Agent in Kandy. He ran very comfortable establishments wherever he lived, and in Colombo my father used to frequent his flat, to eat and drink all sorts of healthy concoctions where he was Ayurveda Commissioner. Now, in Kandy, I spent many happy holidays at the Lodge, his official residence, where I could sprawl about in many large rooms, in marked contrast to Hope’s small house in Reeves Gardens. W J had a host of handsome young men to look after him and all his visitors, who were legion. Most notable were Ediriweera Sarachchandra and his charming second wife Lalitha, who were wonderfully indulgent to me, but so too were the Speaker Shirley Corea and, once, the former Prime Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake, who gave me a lift to Colombo and talked all the way without a pause about the glories of English Literature.
Hope had just had the one boy to look after him, a young rascal as Hope called him, rarely at home during the day, because he was flirting with the girl who looked after the old Benzies sisters next door. But Chanmugam, as he was called, was devoted to Hope, cooked very good meals, and used every morning to crank up his car to save petrol. I was as happy reading there as I was later at the Lodge, my routine changing only on the days when I walked to the British Council to change books. Chanmugam continued to look after the house when Hope moved to Colombo, for he kept it going as a place to stop over at during his many journeys, at least until Chanmugam married the girl next door, finally with the blessings of the Benzies – by which time, though that is another story, Hope himself had married.