The Wickremesinghe children – Tissa, Lakshman, Mukta and Esmond

Expansive though the downstairs of Lakmahal was, and made me in describing it, the heart of the house lay upstairs, in a layout that had been designed especially for the family that moved into it in January 1937. My grandmother must have been looking forward to this enormously. For the last few years she had had to look after a dynamic collection of children who, charming though they all were, must have been intensely demanding.

Something of what she must have gone through was suggested to me only towards the end of her life, when she was in her nineties and I realized that my mother was worried not just about her physical condition. Only my mother was left to look after her by then, for all her brothers were dead, Tissa the second in 1961, the youngest Lakshman in 1983 at the age of 56, and the eldest Esmond two years later. After Lakshman died my mother once suddenly said that he was the only one who had understood – once, sometimes twice, a year, he would take my grandmother to Kurunagala, and grant my mother relief for a week at least of what I sensed she saw as a tremendous responsibility.

Apart from the natural tensions between two strong personalities, there was I later realized something more. My mother mentioned once, in passing, and could not quite remember the dates, though it seems to have been sometimes in the thirties, that – overwhelmed perhaps by her own responsibilities for four lively children, needing also to spend time with her husband in his various increasingly demanding stations of work outside Colombo- my grandmother had suffered a nervous breakdown. My aunt Ena provided further evidence of this, in that her mother, my grandmother’s cousin, had once mentioned the enormous amount Esme had to do, rushing about by rickshaw in Colombo to supply her brood and the vast quantities of friends all four attracted.

So it was not only his own health, as I had earlier thought, that had led Cyril to cut short his work in the field, his collaboration with D S Senanayake in irrigation works and the development of the new town at Anuradhapura. D S seems to have understood, for my grandfather was made Land Commissioner in Colombo, where he could play some part at least in the vast resettlements and restructuring D S had envisioned.

The upstairs hallway

Cyril then was finally able to build a house of their own for his family, the first they owned, and Esme could escape from the peripatetic life she had led since marriage and settle in at Lakmahal for the next half century and more. The house accordingly was designed for the family to sprawl in, the large downstairs for public entertainment, and upstairs, for them all to pursue their varied interests, six large rooms, four balconies, three bathrooms (red and green and blue – downstairs was yellow), two hallways and a lovely lounge, with windows on three sides looking out over trees and stretches of green grass in other properties north and south, and eastward in Lakmahal’s own front lawn.

The three flights of stairs from the ground floor gave onto the first hallway upstairs off which three rooms led, my grandparents’ bedroom over the large guest room, my grandfather’s study over the library, and a third room over the piano alcove extension of the drawing room downstairs. Between the master bedroom and the study was the red bathroom, over the downstairs bathroom and the corridor that connected it to the two guest rooms and the library. Over the smaller guest room was a square balcony that faced westward, so my grandmother could, until her sixties, enjoy the sunset, until is high rise buildings blocked the view of the sea.

The nicest room upstairs, except for the lounge, was my grandfather’s study, which also looked westward to the sea. Sadly, he enjoyed it for just eight years, before he died in 1945, six months before his first grandchild was born. My grandmother was distraught, having moved under his sheltering wing when she was just eighteen, and finding there a devotion that she basked in after her own large and highly idiosyncratic family.

I suspect that my grandfather knew she would need care, and realized that, given the varied interests of his sons, only my mother would provide it. That may explain why he did not want her to go to university, bright though she was academically. I had never thought about it myself, for when I was growing up women could still be thought of as essentially wives and mothers, so I was startled when, in Denmark, where we went together during my postgraduate years to visit great family friends, she was asked why she had not gone to university. Her answer surprised me even more, that it was because her father had not wanted her to.

the best of us, as her brother Esmond described her

I often thought about this later, for I realized that my mother’s enormous potential – the best of us, as her brother Esmond described her, according to Ralph Buultjens – had never been fulfilled. Initially I wondered whether it was because the two cousins, my grandmother and Lady Aluwihare, had panicked about too much freedom for young ladies, after Ena had married the man of her choice, to the chagrin initially of her parents. But from what I knew of my grandfather, that sort of consideration would not have weighed with him too much.

Rather, I now believe, he knew that his wife would need a constant companion when he was gone, and his sons obviously had to pursue independent careers. So my mother stayed at home, and when she married her brothers told my father that he would have to live at Lakmahal and look after their mother. It was a task my parents fulfilled conscientiously, even to the extent of my father turning down three ambassadorial positions which President Premadasa offered him.

India, he would say deprecatingly, had not interested him, and he was delighted to be able instead to suggest Neville Kanakaratne, who he had no doubt did a much better job than he could ever have done, at a very difficult period. But he would have liked Canada, where we had lived as a family for nearly two years while he was at McGill, and England he would have relished. But – though I tried to persuade them that I could manage – my mother said simply that she could not leave my grandmother and my father never questioned her decision.

They did however have two respites, the latter tragically, for while we were in Canada my uncle Tissa was ill, terminally as it turned out, and my grandmother was at his side, nursing him, for some of this period in England where we stayed with her on our way back in 1960. The other respite was much earlier, when Lakshman, who always understood, as my mother put it, took his mother to England to stay with him while he was a curate in the East End of London. I suspect my grandmother enjoyed those years more than any other time since she was widowed. I think it must have been wonderful too for my parents, to have a house of their own, for at least a few years when they were young. I was born during that time, much sooner after my sister’s birth than might have been anticipated, which I put down as a mark of my parents’ carefree mood – though my sister can also be blamed, for an astrologer who saw her horoscope soon after she was born predicted a brother very soon. Interestingly, that same astrologer had told my father that I would help to bring peace to Sri Lanka, a prediction that I had forgotten about, though my father had mentioned it years ago, until in 2007 I was asked to head the government Peace Secretariat.