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Old Parliament - Colombo

When Hope was in Colombo, his hours at the Tourist Board were fairly regular. This was in the mid-sixties, after my father had moved to Parliament and become Clerk to the House, the post later designated as Secretary General of Parliament. It was the period when Parliament was at its best, for you had evenly balanced teams with brilliant debaters on either side.

My father had moved there in 1963, as assistant to Ralph Deraniyagala, who had been Clerk practically since independence. Many of his friends wondered why my father took up the job, and though he took over as Clerk in 1964 even he sometimes wistfully regretted the fact that he had given up a chance to get on the bench, as a Supreme Court judge (though such regrets ceased in the eighties when it became clear that the bench was no longer what it had been, as JR tried to remould the Supreme Court in his own image).

In the early sixties the post of Clerk had been a sortof sinecure, which suited the aristocratic Deraniyagala admirably. With the onset of party political intrigues however, beginning with the accession of the Trotskyists to Mrs Bandaranaike’s government, and the subsequent crossover to the opposition of some SLFP members which brought down the government, parliamentary procedures became of crucial significance, and so did the role of the Clerk, who was supposed to advise the Speaker on statutory requirements. In those days, unlike in the early eighties when ridiculous rulings were made (such as that allowing the unseated member for Kalawana to continue in Parliament), Speakers were more scrupulous. Whatever outcome they wanted, they would try to ensure that their rulings were legally sound.

Lake House - Colombo

My father was in a difficult position, since the Speaker at the time, Hugh Fernando, was one of those inclining to the opposition, while it was generally known that the architect of the project to buy over at least some members of the government was my mother’s brother Esmond. Of course some members of the government who crossed over, the senior minister C P de Silva for instance, were moved by principles which they felt were being traduced by the party’s lurch to the left. However there were others as to whom Esmond made no bones about mentioning the prices that had been paid, and indeed on one occasion pointing out the house built with the proceeds. Meanwhile Lake House, which he ran at the time, was conducting a concerted campaign against the government, not only because of its own UNP leanings, but because these had led to the government trying to take over the press.

It is a tribute to my father’s personality, as well as his legal acumen,that the rulings given by the Speaker have stood the test of time, and that later, when Mrs Bandaranaike returned to power, she and the Trotskyists continued to have great faith in him even though some members of her party, irritated by the rulings of the new Speaker, Stanley Tillekeratne, tried to blame my father. By then of course Lake House had been nationalized, my uncle having given up control some years previously, which had been followed by a financial scandal that contributed to the loss of credibility of its management (there had been almost no allegations regarding Esmond himself, it should be noted, in the record of financial irregularities).

Those were heady days then, and the Parliament elected in 1965, after Mrs Bandaranaike’s first government had been defeated but Dudley Senanayake only just managed to cobble together a coalition government, was the liveliest we had ever had. The opposition front bench had a collection of brilliant speakers, the Trotskyist N M Perera, the Communist Pieter Keuneman, Felix Dias Bandaranaike from the SLFP, and the maverick R G Senanayake, Dudley’s cousin, who had left the UNP to join Mr Bandaranaike’s government in 1956 and now sat as an independent in the very corner, under the Speaker’s gallery.

The government had Philip Gunewardena and Wijayananda Dahanayake, both of whom had served in the 1956 government, as well as Dudley Senanayake himself, and the sharpest of them all, J R Jayewardene. He was widely considered the best speaker in the House, though it seemed to me that the youthful Felix was by far more brilliant.

I followed the proceedings assiduously in 1965, trying out all the seats and finally settling on the front row of the gallery directly facing the opposition front bench, so I could better observe the sparkling of its stars. The long day was interspersed by a good lunch, and an excellent tea, to which I would return, if the debate were dull, at around six o’clock, to polish off the remains and observe the sunset from the balcony outside my father’s rooms.

All these long evenings meant that my father was often late, and could not pick up my mother from the Girl Guide Association, where she spent most of her days. Besides, he was not especially patient, whereas Hope was. He seemed to have no problem about hanging on while my mother’s request for a couple of minutes stretched on to half an hour and more.

The reason for such heroic patience became clear when we discovered that Hope was paying court to the Secretary of the Association, Kalyani Rajasooriya. My mother, who did not drive, and seemed to have no sense of direction, had a habit of asking people to drop her on their way to somewhere that was in a totally different direction altogether. She did this on behalf of others too, and Hope used often to drop Kaly home of an evening, and in time they decided that they wanted to get married.

This was awkward, because Kaly’s parents were strong Sinhala Buddhists and thought Hope entirely unsuitable. Having been brought up ourselves in a context in which racial and religious differences counted for nothing – my cousins on both sides were Buddhists, my father’s family as well as Esmond’s wife’s family being staunchly so – I found it difficult to believe that the objections to Hope could be serious. Kaly’s parents had after all been utterly charming on the few occasions on which we had met them.

But her uncle, it seemed, a Professor in the Medical Faculty in Colombo, was a forceful Buddhist nationalist. I had met him, at W J Fernando’s in Kandy, and found him quite brittle, and it was then that I began to have inklings of a very different mindset from that of the cosmopolitanism I took for granted. In such a context it was impossible for Kaly’s parents to agree, and in the end she had to leave home and have a quiet wedding.

This could not happen at Lakmahal, given my mother’s long acquaintance with the family. Fortunately the other single person who was often at Lakmahal, Diana Captain, had a large house and a very broadminded mother who adored Hope. The wedding was held there, in December 1968, I believe shortly before Diana’s sister Perin married a very bright young man called Lalith Athulathmudali. Son of Mr Bandaranaike’s closest friend in the State Council, educated at Oxford and Harvard, he was keen on politics and obviously had a great future. However, having taught also at Singapore University, he was bursting with new ideas, which meant he would find it difficult to join the SLFP, which was increasingly influenced by Marxist ideology. And perhaps more worryingly, for someone who had just married a Parsi, the SLFP and its Marxist allies, had campaigned, as had the extremists in the UNP led by its former General Secretary Cyril Mathew, against the very limited devolution Dudley Senanayake had attempted to grant through a bill to set up District Councils. The slogans they used, in what should have been a political issue, were unashamedly racist, and suggested that the bitterness engendered by similar reactions to Mr Bandaranaike’s own attempt at devolution a decade earlier was still simmering.