While I was growing up, I had little sense of Esmond, my mother’s eldest brother, being part of Lakmahal. The house emphatically belonged to the Wickremesinghes, with my grandmother presiding over it and her husband’s legacy with a commitment I took long to understand; whenever Esmond was present, he sat at the head of the table where his father had sat before him; but whereas Tissa, who died at Lakmahal in 1961, and Lakshman, who used it as his Colombo base, were emphatically part of the household, Esmond always seemed a visitor.
He had his own very comfortable home in 5th Lane nearby, given to Nalini by her father when they married, and they were kind enough to keep my sister and me during the last days of Tissa’s illness when it was thought his agony would be too much for young children. 5th Lane, as we called that household, always came to lunch on Sundays, though on an increasingly staggered basis as the years passed and its members developed different interests. Esmond himself was generally the first, and sometimes he had eaten and gone by the time the rest of his family, which was used to rising late, arrived. He himself often, if not always, also marked his presence in church on Sunday mornings, coming late and leaving early, after having checked that his mother had registered his arrival.
As I grew older, and he realized that I was the only one in my family who was not particularly reverent about religion, he would dig me in the ribs from behind, and ask whether his mother had noticed him, after which he would quietly melt away. From the start we had a closer relationship than he had with my siblings, based initially on a shared sense of humour and his conviction that I was perennially hungry.
However, I did not really see him as part of the family unit, as we did Lakshman, who had a strong bond with my mother and was always particularly fond of my sister. Later, starting I think from the time I got into Oxford, he and I became very close, since we had much in common intellectually and in our social and political perspectives. When I resigned from my university position in 1980 in protest against the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, he was I felt the only person amongst my close acquaintance who understood the reasons for my action, and who sympathized absolutely.
By then, at first sight surprisingly, Esmond had become a much more frequent visitor at Lakmahal than in the sixties. He would drop in of an evening on almost a weekly basis, and increasingly he would want to talk to me, though obviously we had very different attitudes to what the government was doing. In an odd way I think he wanted to know what other people were thinking, and in the sycophantic acceptance of whatever J R decreed that was all Colombo in general could offer in the early eighties, he probably found the principled and analytical dissent he found at Lakmahalat the very least stimulating.
I hasten to add that it was Lakshman who provided the bulk of this, and in particular in those days he was startlingly forceful on the subject of Tamil grievances. I recall him one day raising his voice, unusually for he was properly respectful generally of his eldest brother, to tell him that he must make sure J R understood that the problem was rapidly reaching a point at which it would be impossible to solve. Not quite understanding myself the enormity of the oppression J R had unleashed in Jaffna in 1979, which he was to repeat elsewhere from 1981 onward, I thought Lakshman exaggerated.
I was wrong. Where I was more perceptive than Lakshman was in realizing that Esmond did not really take his warnings seriously. Once I recall Lakshman saying that Esmond Aiya had assured him that he would take the matter up and make sure J R changed his approach, but it struck me that Lakshman did not realize how committed Esmond was by now to his leader, and indeed to Cyril Mathew whom he sometimes declared could be the future leader of the UNP. These were areas, pertaining more to gossip than to principle, for which Lakshman had little time, but which Esmond and I discussed and disagreed about with relish.
Esmond made no bones about the fact that he thought Premadasa would not make a suitable successor to J R, and that someone else had to be promoted who could also supplant him without too much controversy. Lalith Athulathmudali, whom I knew, and thought highly of then, I suspect only because he too had been to Oxford, and visited me there in the early seventies, Esmond also despised, as too clever by half. Initially he even floated the idea of N G P Panditharatne, another party stalwart who was then Chairman of the UNP, taking over, but even if he were serious initially, it must have soon become clear to everyone that such backroom manoeuveres were no longer possible, and an active politician with public appeal was essential.
And so he began to talk, seriously as it turned out, of Mathew taking over in time. Initially I treated this as another of Esmond’s jokes, for I did not know then how close they had been in the past. But in time I learned that he and Mathew had in effect formed a troika with J R to rebuild the party after its disastrous showing in 1956. And later still, though this was speculation, it occurred to me that when Dudley Senanayake had begun to suspect J R and Esmond of plotting against him in the late sixties, it was in the context of the challenge to his authority that Mathew had in fact launched, in openly opposing the District Councils Bill, so that he had to be removed from the position of General Secretary of the UNP.
Unfortunately, by the time all this became clear, when it was obvious that Mathew was still being promoted by Esmond despite the horrors of the attacks in Jaffna in 1981 and the burning of the Public Library, Lakshman was less active than before. He had suffered his first heart attack and been advised to rest, and in 1982 he went away to England for a year, to rest and think and write. So he was not here as the build up to July 1983 continued. Esmond continued to visit, but I knew too little to argue convincingly, and in any case I don’t suppose he would have taken me seriously. But sometimes I think that, had Lakshman been around in those crucial months, there might have been some modification of the strategy towards which, like the Gadarene swine, Mathew and J R were rushing headlong.