Everything that could have gone wrong about our trip to Kandy in April 1981 did go wrong. We were due to travel by night, after an evening drinking at the Art Centre Club, but one of our number failed to turn up, so we had to postpone our departure till the next day. I did not want to go back home after having said I was leaving, so I spent the night at Richard’s, where his mother was quite used to sudden changes in plans. She was really quite an extraordinary character, remaining calm in the midst of all Richard’s various fads and fashions. On a couple of occasions I took her on holidays with us, which meant that Richard backed out, since he hated mixing up his different lives. However, characteristically, he dropped in on both occasions, even roaring up to Wilpattu on his bike for a lightening visit.
After a leisurely breakfast, which Manorani provided in the midst of going off to work, we were finally all together, and set off, only discovering en route that none of us had brought much money. Tissa’s man of all work welcomed us warmly to the little flat on the Peradeniya Road, and cooked for us the limited rations we brought back on the first day. Then, on the second, we met up with Qadri Ismail, who had just gone up to read English at Peradeniya. Unlike Ravi, who was in the same batch, he had to spend his vacations at the university, since he was in bad odour at home for having opted out of medicine, for which he had been selected. Those were the days in which, with district quotas reintroduced, and S. Thomas’ run by a regime that thought its students did not need to go to university, very few boys got in for prestigious subjects. The Ismails, who valued education, were deeply upset when Qadri succeeded in qualifying for medicine, and then declared that he preferred the Arts.
I had met him some time back with the Thomian Drama Society, and found him surprisingly well read, so I had encouraged his keenness to do English. Then I resigned, which caused him some irritation, though he was kind enough, after one visiting lecture I gave, to say that that was what he had hoped for from university. Still, despite his parents refusing to help him financially, and scorn for much of the staff (though he later came to appreciate at least some of their positive points) he ploughed on, and got the best First in the subject for ages. He then went into journalism, and produced some of the best reporting of events before and after the Indo-Lankan Accord. Sadly he was then swept away to America, where he now teaches, though he returns at intervals to address himself more closely to Sri Lankan issues.
While he was at university his many friends subsidized him to greater or lesser extents till his parents finally came round, which meant of course that, when he took us to Lyon’s Café, as the regular haunt of undergraduates, we had to pay. We therefore found ourselves with hardly anything left, with a couple of days still to go before we were due back in Colombo. Richard then hit on the bright idea of inflicting ourselves on a cousin on an estate in Nawalapitiya, which we duly did, after a train ride for which we had just enough money. We were graciously welcomed, and had an idyllic couple of days, though I realized then that the lavish lifestyle I had been used to on tea estates during schoolboy holidays was very much in the past. We were well satisfied however, especially because our hosts lent us funds to make the journey back to Colombo.
I think it was at the second meal that Ravi suddenly had hysterics and left the table, to be followed hastily by Richard. It turned out that I caused them vast amusement by trying to make conversation with our host and hostess. ‘You have to learn,’ Richard said to me firmly, ‘that you don’t really have to talk all the time. Some people prefer silence.’
I was duly rebuked, and realized that the Oxford theory that one had to converse brightly right through a meal, with one’s neighbours in turn and also with whoever was opposite, had to be forgotten. I had some consolation though when Richard told me later that his cousins thought I was the nicest guest they had ever had. I never met them after that, but the episode made me think much about the artificiality of the social skills I had picked up as an essential part of a university education, as well as their advantages. Years later however, trying to work out why government found it so difficult to deal with what is termed the international community, I realized that perhaps some training in such soft skills would make a lot of sense.
Back in Colombo, continuing with my unfocused existence, I realized it was time I thought of another job, but then realized more fully the difficulties of a dispensation in which intellectual activity, such as it was, was dominated by the state. I had no inclination to join the business sector, but education was wholly a state monopoly, and except for Marga, which had begun to get withdrawal symptoms, there were no think-tanks.
It was then that Chanaka suggested I become Sub-Warden of S. Thomas’. He had been teaching there in between degrees, and he had found the College in a mess. The Warden had agreed with him about the mess, and it seems readily fallen in with his suggestion that I be persuaded to assist. I was slightly surprised, because I was under the impression that Fr Chickera, who had been Chaplain, had been sent to Oxford to obtain a diploma so that he could become Sub-Warden and then take over. My father had helped him with his passage, and was enthusiastic about the man, but Chanaka told me that he was unlikely to be appointed and Lyn Illangakoon, the Warden, was quite negative about him when I asked.
I was duly appointed after just a single interview with Illangakoon and the Treasurer of the Board, a protégé of my Uncle Lakshman called Duleep Kumar. It seemed that he virtually ran the College, since the Board duly appointed me on his recommendation, without my meeting anyone else on it. Even my father, who was on the Board as the Staff Representative, did not know about the matter till it came before the Board.
Lakshman had fallen ill earlier that year, with the heart problem that was to precipitate his early death in 1983. He had gone away for medical attention and, when he came back, he said that while in England he had heard that, like himself nearly thirty years earlier, I had been asked to be Sub-Warden of S. Thomas’. He had replied that he was sure that, like him, I would refuse. He was surprised when I told him I had accepted, because I think that after my resignation from the University he thought me a radical like himself. In the fifties he had thought S. Thomas’ too elitist to join, and had preferred, after a short period as a curate, to move to Peradeniya as University Chaplain, where he dealt with a much wider social range.
I thought about what he had said, but it seemed to me that the situation had changed and that S. Thomas’, while still a place of privilege, had also suffered serious deprivation. That it did not understand what it was lacking, in terms of intellectual and social commitment, was something that could be remedied. Given what Illangakoon had told me, that teachers did not come to class, that discipline had broken down, that exam results were terrible, I thought it would be an interesting challenge.
I had however asked for time, since I wanted to get back to England. It was nearly two years since I had been there, and I felt it was time to return to what I still continued to think of as my roots, not just intellectual, but social and moral too.