Alfie Moragoda, Clarrie Gunawardena, Esmond Wickremesinghe, J R Jayewardene, Jaffna Library, Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Ravi John, Richard de Zoysa, Romesh Soysa, Sarath Muttetuwegama, Tissa Jayatilleke
Thirty years ago then was a fallow period , as I came to terms with the realities of a rigid regime. The position I had hoped for at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies vanished into thin air, and the editor of the ‘Sunday Times’ was compelled to stop my weekly literature column. All this was the more upsetting in that Colombo still assumed that all was well with the government and the country, and it must be one’s own fault if one was treated by the government as an enemy of the people, characterized by someone on the UNP Working Committee, as my uncle Esmond entertainingly described it, as a bearded Communist.
I was reminded then of the delightful Art Buchwald satire I had read many years ago of a country that received a lot of American aid, because it had a small Communist party. The aid had a beneficial effect and the country advanced into prosperity, with the Communists too benefiting. But when they gave up their old ideology, the Americans decided that aid was no longer necessary – so that the government had to beg them to keep the party going, to ensure further inflows of aid.
That story had a more preposterous incarnation in Sri Lanka two years later, when Jayewardene permitted appalling attacks on Tamils, and then claimed that this was the understandable response of the Sinhalese to efforts to divide the country. He therefore introduced legislation which in effect led to the elimination of the TULF from Parliament. That however proved too much for his Western allies, so before long the government reversed its stand and claimed that the attacks had been launched by Communists. The old Stalinist Communist Party was proscribed, along with Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s Revolutionary Trostskyists and the JVP which Jayewardene had revived after he came into power.
The Communists and the Trostskyists reacted with scorn, Sarath Muttetuwegama making a memorable speech in which he claimed that it was Jayewardene, not the Communists, who had a history of racism. They were deproscribed in time, but the JVP took to the ban like ducks to water, and turned into an urban guerilla movement with a tremendously violent impact five years later.
But that is another story. Back in 1981 Jayewardene was still a hero in Colombo, and in particular to the Tamils. That began to change just a few months later, with the strong arm tactics in Jaffna during the District Development Council elections, including the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. It became clear then that those who were critical of the government were not totally eccentric, and people were actually willing to listen to my account, after I had been to Jaffna, of the bitterness I discerned. I realized myself then what my uncle Lakshman had claimed the previous year, when I too had thought he exaggerated.
I remained unemployed for much of 1981, earning enough for my very limited expenses through teaching, but in effect living off my parents at ‘Lakmahal’, where meals and cups of tea appeared as if by magic when they were needed. I wrote much in the upstairs room looking over the garden and the flowering trees, stories as well as a collection of essays that was intended to cater to Advanced Level students. It was cyclostyled, and was sold for the princely sum of Rs 5 at English Association events. It soon sold out, for students had hardly any access to supplementary reading, and had to depend principally on notes that teachers dictated from dog-eared books they had been using for decades. Since the syllabuses now included lots of modern material, including Sri Lankan and Commonwealth writers, and pop lyrics, teachers were at a loss, so my basic expositions – the book was entitled ‘Basic Values’ -proved quite popular.
I travelled out of Colombo when I could, principally to Kurunegala, where my mother’s Goonewardene cousin Lakshmi lived all by herself in the rambling old house where my grandmother had been born. The army of staff her father had had were long gone, but Lakshmi was still a good hostess, and I much enjoyed reading and writing there in solitude. Sharya invited me occasionally to the family bungalow in Nuwara Eliya, where I much enjoyed dry martinis on the lawn with her parents. Saku Kadirgamar, who had also come back from England after her degree, did the same, for her family home there, and we spent many happy hours on board games as well as Mah-Jong and bridge. Sadly my grandmother, who had taught me both when I was small, could no longer play, as her eyesight and her hearing deteriorated.
Most enjoyable for bridge evenings were the husbands of my mother’s cousins on the Wickremesinghe side, the former Civil Servants Clarrie Gunawardena and Alfie Moragoda. They were extraordinarily kind to me, inviting me along to play with their peers such as Sharker Mohideen and Justice Swaris. They played for stakes which they moderated for my sake, with lots to drink and excellent short eats provided by their wives. I had some idea then of how Civil Servants had passed their time in the outstations in the old days, going back further indeed than Clarrie and Alfie, to the days of my grandfather. In his time though, they played with their wives, a custom that seemed to have gone out in the next generation. I still have the set for double dummy bridge on which my grandfather had taught my grandmother the game, and on which she and I used to play endlessly in the afternoons when I was small. I am sorry now that I did not make more of an effort to involve her in games in the eighties, for so much of what I enjoyed when I was young, and later, I owe to her.
In the midst of what I see now as a rather desultory existence, one journey stands out. It was during the April New Year period in 1981, and is the only student excursion I have enjoyed in this country. I had plenty in England, but having virtually left school after my Ordinary Levels, to travel and then to study at home for the Oxford Entrance, I had never really interacted with my peers on trips.
In 1981 Richard and I decided to take a few days off and go to Kandy, where Tissa Jayatilleke had kindly offered us his flat. We took along Ravi John, Richard’s principal protégé at St. Joesph’s, and a boy called Romesh Soysa who was at S. Thomas’ but refused to get involved in the rivalry with Richard that drama competitions had engendered. It seemed that he had a heart condition, for he died a few years later, in America where he had gone to study. After Richard was killed, a few years after that, his parents would place a memorial for both of them in the papers, since the anniversary of his death was around the same time as Richard’s. And then, a few years later, Ravi developed cancer, and he too died young. I was the oldest in the group, by far really, but I am the only one now left, and have been for well over a decade.