In the early sixties, when I first came to consciousness as it were in Sri Lanka, I knew little and understood nothing of the tragedies my grandmother had faced earlier. We were aware only of my uncle Tissa’s dying and his death, nine months after we came back from Canada. The family had got chicken pox in London on the way back, my fault for I had contracted it just before we left Canada, so that we could not enjoy the tour of Europe that my parents had planned. Worse, we gave it to my grandmother and my uncle in hospital, and to Aelian Nugara, the Lake House agent in London who had been of invaluable assistance to the family, and generally it seems caused an epidemic.
A few months after we had got back my grandmother returned with Tissa, knowing that nothing could be done for him. He came back to the room at the front of the house which had been his as a boy. It was on the south side, above the drawing room, but also had windows eastward, looking over the front lawn and the pink cassia tree that he had planted there a few years earlier. He liked to look at the tree, initially, but then his eyes began to fail, and he was blind by the time he died, on January 30th 1961.
It was a tragic death, for it could easily have been avoided, or so I later gathered. It began with an accident while he was driving, when his arm was shattered. Diabetes, the dreaded family disease, meant that healing was slow, but it seemed he also neglected himself, and then gangrene set in and other complications.
From something let slip by Hope Todd, who had initially been his particular friend before being adopted by the family in general, I got the impression that part of the reason for the neglect was resentment at the excessive care my grandmother lavished on him. I may have read too much into his remark, in my sometimes dramatic attempts to understand the dynamics of a fascinating family, but certainly there were tensions between Tissa and his mother, tensions that led to terrible rows in the few months before he died.
These got so bad that, often, my sister and I were sent to stay at 5th Lane, at the house belonging to his wife Nalini that Esmond had moved into when they married. But, though Tissa could be frightening towards the end, I also remember a great gentleness at times. For Anila, who was his god-daughter, there was even more of this, and when he died she was distraught.
We provided some solace for my grandmother in those days, taking it in turns to spend the night in her bedroom. This gradually evolved into a permanent arrangement for Anila, who was also then able to move from the bedroom all three of us children had shared, and have a room of her own. This was the bedroom nearest that of my grandparents’, which opened off the same hallway, at the head of the stairs.
That bedroom had earlier been my mother’s. It also had a door that opened eastward into a small corridor that led to the green bathroom which she had shared with Tissa, who was just a couple of years older than her. There was a third door in the corridor, which led into the bedroom opposite, which Tissa had had as a boy initially, and in which he died.
These two bedrooms shared a beautiful semi-circular balcony that lay over the side-verandah, both looking onto the side garden. My father tells me that often Tissa and his friends would sleep out on that balcony, having talked there late into the night. As children we often slept there ourselves, Anila and I along with an ayah who told us stories till we slept – or failed to do so, after Angulimala for instance – until I was allowed to keep a dog indoors and the balcony turned into its bathroom on occasion. That stopped us sleeping there, but perhaps that was not the only reason, for by then we had to be careful about security.
During the years when I did not have a bedroom of my own, I consoled myself with the thought that the green bathroom at least was mine, for the rest of the family stuck resolutely to the blue bathroom that we had all used since childhood. The green bathroom had the advantage of a geyser, the only one in the house in my childhood, but the disadvantage of a window opening onto the balcony, without any very sensible system of curtains. This however made it a great resource in childhood hunting games, until it was thought necessary to introduce mesh, thus preventing us from leaping over the sill to escape pursuit.
The problem of security had been brought forcibly to our attention one night when we had a break in. This was into what had been my grandfather’s study, now used as such by my grandmother, but also as a bedroom by Lakshman when he was in Colombo. He was by now Bishop of Kurunagala, having been consecrated at the end of 1962, as successor to Lakdasa de Mel who had become Anglican Metropolitan of all four former British colonies, India, Burma, Pakistan (then including East Pakistan, the future Bangladesh), and Ceylon.
The thief, it transpired, had observed the room from the roof of the servants’ quarters, and when the lights were out he had shinned up a drainpipe and through one of the large windows. Particularly attractive to him, it seemed, had been the episcopal ring, and the silver cross that Lakshman had taken off before retiring. Unfortunately for the thief, who had made straight for these, Lakshman slept lightly and had been a distinguished rugger player at school. Having been woken, he had addressed whoever he sensed was in the room. The thief had tried to made a break for it, and the Bishop of Kurunagala had tackled him efficiently.
Over the years that followed, Lakshman, as Bishop of Kurunagala was to make his mark in several areas, as a radical representative of the Third World at the Lambeth Conference of all Anglican prelates, as Chairman of the Civil Rights Movement, as passionate seeker for reconciliation after the horrors of July 1983. He died in that last effort, at the age of 56. Had he lived, he would have been 80 on the 24th of March 1927, 70 years after the family had moved into Lakmahal.
There are many reasons to regret him, and to remember him fondly. Not many would know or care much about his spectacular rugby tackle shortly after his consecration, but I feel that that adds yet another dimension to a man of enormous courage and commitment.