Cyril Wickremesinghe had obviously planned Lakmahal for his family, and it was on the basis of his four very lively children that he had built four large bedrooms upstairs, apart from the massive one he occupied with his wife which she used for nearly half a century after his death. The four bedrooms for the children shared two bathrooms, my mother’s and Tissa’s the green one, placed between their rooms, and accessible also from the central hallway, so that it could be used by visitors too.
The other bathroom however, the blue one, was awkward for sharing, for it led off Lakshman’s bedroom which was directly opposite the passage to the green bathroom. That bedroom also connected with Esmond’s bedroom, which was opposite Tissa’s. Cyril may have well thought that Lakshman, not yet ten when the family moved into Lakmahal, required to have his eldest brother, then sixteen, close at hand, but the design he finally chose meant that access for the bigger one to the bathroom lay only through the smaller one. This contributed to making Lakshman’s room very much the least attractive in the whole house. It was also dark and very dull, looking out only on a tiny semi-circular balcony, over the bay windows of the dining room below.
But as it happened, later too the connection between the two rooms became an advantage, when my parents used Esmond’s former bedroom. They had started their married life in the big guest room downstairs, but within a few months, after she was pregnant, my mother wanted a change and they moved upstairs. So they had ready access to their children, one and two and then three, who occupied Lakshman’s former room, my sister until she moved to my mother’s old room when she was nine, my brother until he was finally moved at the age of sixteen into Tissa’s room, which he had used as a study after Tissa died whilst continuing to share Lakshman’s room with me to sleep in, and me until I went away to Oxford at seventeen, and then even after I returned four years later between degrees.
The blue bathroom, which I abandoned early on myself in a vain attempt at asserting at least some sort of independence by claiming the green bathroom for my own, lay over the pantry. It gave onto a long narrow balcony that was over the corridor alongside the library that led to the servants’ quarters, the former stables. Thus my grandfather’s study had windows onto this balcony, again a great resource in childhood games. Sadly, that too was shut off when mesh was introduced, as was the small balcony off Lakshman’s room, by the time I finally got a room of my own.
Whereas Lakshman’s room was gloomy, Esmond’s bedroom faced east as did Tissa’s, and both had more light too, from windows to the north and south respectively. My mother’s room, west of Tissa’s, also had just one set of windows, looking south, but she also had access to the large semi-circular balcony that lay over the side garden, so that room too had plenty of light. Lakshman’s tiny balcony could be reached only by clambering over the window sill, until it was finally shut off for ever by the mesh across the windowns. It looked over the drive that was overhung by trees that were lovely to view but ensured that hardly any light got into the room. Electricity was required to do anything at any time of the day, so unlike any other room in the house its use was limited. Clearly the relative attractions of the four bedrooms allotted to the four children made very clear the sense of hierarchy that seems to have dominated the family.
Esmond’s superiority over the others was an established fact in their childhood, asserted most conclusively it seemed by his maternal grandmother. He had been her first grandchild, born when she was well into her fifties, and had virtually given up hope of grandchildren, given the determination of her three eldest children not to marry. When Esme finally married, and dutifully produced a son within a year, the old lady must have been delighted. She made no bones about the fact that he was, and remained, the apple of her eye, and my mother used to tell stories of her adulation, expressed in concrete terms by his getting as much money as the other three put together when she distributed largesse.
It used to make Malli mad, she said, for poor Lakshman got a tiny amount. My mother and Tissa did better and, perhaps conscious that someone was worse off than they were, were not resentful, but I sometimes wonder whether Lakshman’s strong sense of social justice sprang from such experiences. Throughout his life he identified closely with the underdog, which caused some surprise, given his privileged origins, but perhaps within such structures as well there can be perceptions of inequity that strike deep roots. One of the characteristic stories about him relates to his reaction to the 1977 election, about which his mother had written exultantly to a friend in England. She was of the view that the time of deprivation – which had taken away much of her property, through a variety of redistributive laws – was finally over, and milk and honey had returned to the land. Invited to add a brief postscript to the letter, Lakshman had laconically written, ‘My party lost.’
Esmond himself had been emphatically associated since its inception with the party that won that 1977 election, though he never sought prominence himself. He preferred to work in the background, and doubtless relished the description of himself as the ‘eminence grise’ of Ceylonese politics, which appeared in I believe an American report in the sixties. I realize that ‘eminence grise’ may not be understood now in Sri Lanka, for even Wickrama Weerasooriya once objected to my describing him as an ‘eminence grise’ on the grounds that he did not seek the limelight, which had of course been precisely my point. I had better explain then that the phrase refers to someone who works in the shadows, and this is what Esmond did, relishing the impact of his brilliance for which he was quite content to let others take the credit.
Much as they loved each other, and of that there was no doubt, I sometimes wonder whether the two very different approaches of Esmond and Lakshman to life and ideals did not lie in the rooms they occupied when finally, 70 years ago, the family at last moved into the house of their own for which they had waited so long.