After the riots of July 1983, both my uncles were anxious to talk to me, at least according to my mother. I was not in Colombo when the troubles started, for I had a friend visiting from England and, after a hectic tour, to the ancient cities and Sinharaja and Lahugala and the east coast, we were relaxing at one of the cheaper Bentota hotels. When we heard the news, only at dinner time a full day after the troubles had started, I rang home, to be told that it was best to stay where we were, for the house was full of refugees. In any case there was a curfew in the WesternProvince, though we noticed on the next day that this did not prevent truckloads of obvious thugs crossing the bridge and heading towards Colombo to add to the mayhem.
We finally got home on Thursday the 28th, and it was then that my mother said that Esmond had been to Lakmahal often over the last few days, to check obviously on his mother and the rest, but also it seemed keen to talk things over with me. However, Nicholas was clearly panicking, and looking after him while the house was packed seemed complicated, so the next morning we took a bus to Negombo, to wait there until he could get a flight back to England. On the way we realized that chaos was building up again, but it was only after calling home that evening that we realized the full extent of the horrors of Black Friday, when there was concerted killing.
But this might have been anticipated, following J R’s preposterous performance the night before, when he had basically said that the rioters were Sinhalese patriots opposed to attempts to divide the country. That morning the papers had carried an account of terrorists attempting to attack the railway stations and being killed by public spirited citizens, which must have seemed an invitation to those who wanted to be seen as patriots to kill anyone acting suspiciously. And so it was that on Friday 29th July once again all hell broke loose.
When I got back to Colombo a few days later, having seen Nicholas off safely, things were calmer. By then voices of sanity had prevailed in the government, though absurdly this involved claiming that it was the parties of the left that had been responsible for the riots, not Sinhalese patriots. The absurdity of what had occurred was palpable, and I think Esmond realized this, for he was a different Esmond from the self-possessed uncle I knew, drinking much more, and talking loosely.
Later I was to be told categorically that he had been amongst those who had organized the riots. I still find this difficult to believe, as did Lakshman, who was away in England but was kept abreast of what was happening. When we discussed the matter, in the last conversation I had with him, on the telephone, on the day I got to England in August, the day before he returned, he told me that he thought his brother was too great a humanist to have been involved.
I would like to think he was correct, or at least that, if he knew about what was gong to happen on July 23rd and thereafter, it was in terms of just the initial approach, which was only to damage and not to kill. However, perhaps the most contentious conversation we ever had sometimes makes me wonder.
It was to do with the massacres of Tamil prisoners at Welikada, two sets of massacres, on the 25th and again on the 27th. Esmond came home on the evening of the inquiry, and mentioned that the magistrate had had to be reined in when he began asking too many questions. This gave me my chance to question him on the assumption that the massacres had been planned by those in authority, and he virtually admitted this, though he claimed in mitigation that this was a way of defusing tensions so that the ‘patriotic’ Sinhalese rioting outside could be assuaged, and not think they had to take further revenge.
The argument was preposterous and I told him so. His response was that I was naïve, a characterization that he had also previously applied to his younger brother. In a sense he was correct, but it was a different sense from his own, for I began to realize then that my naivete had lain, not in an unrealistic idealism, but in believing that people just like myself, who shared the same blood and breeding, would necessarily have the same moral perspectives.
I was deeply upset, and I shared my worries with Lakshman when we spoke, a few weeks later, when I got to England. I suspect now that that was why he was so anxious to see me when I got back home in the middle of October, to find him in hospital, his heart having given way after the tremendous effort he had put in to bring about reconciliation, traveling to Jaffna, praying, preaching, writing. Sydney Knight, one of his most devoted followers, certainly thought he was deeply upset, for he wrote later in a memoir, “In October 1983 he said, “Sydney, July 1983 has made me realize that even some of those cradled at Lak Mahal have been used by the powers that are to cause the genocide.” He was in pain. His heart, weak as it was, could not take this pain, the massacre of the innocents, an ethnic group, engineered by the State.’
My mother wanted me to go to see him in hospital soon after I returned, but my grandmother suggested I wait, since he was recovering slowly. Perhaps she thought that a visit from me would excite him too much. So I waited, not understanding how precious time is, and a week after I got back, on the 23rd of October, he died.
Esmond was as devastated as the rest of us. And I began to realize then that perhaps I had been too clinical in my earlier views, and that Esmond, as a product of Lakmahal and the humane pluralism of its values, did indeed share our perspectives. But they had been overlain by those of the associates he had fallen amongst, and it was precisely because he knew underneath that something was wrong that he spent so much more time at Lakmahal in that year, justifying what was happening, drinking more heavily than I had ever seen before in his efforts to convince himself that he had not strayed too far.
In the two years that remained to him, he moved away from Cyril Mathew. About the last conversation I remember having with him at Lakmahal, sitting for some reason I cannot now remember on the side verandah downstairs, he talked about the relationship he had built up with Romesh Bhandari, Rajiv Gandhi’s Foreign Secretary, who had seemed much more sympathetic to the Sri Lankan government than Mrs Gandhi’s agent Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy, sent immediately after the 1983 riots, when in any case India had to be much more sympathetic to the Tamils.
What was particularly interesting was that, for the first time since I had known him, Esmond seemed to be on a different wavelength from J R. He had come into greater public prominence than perhaps ever before in his forty years and was also more openly involved politically, for he had been sent as the Sri Lankan emissary to the SAARC meeting in Nepal which J R had earlier threatened to boycott. Having met Bhandari previously, when the latter visited Sri Lanka early in 1985 after Rajiv Gandhi began as Prime Minister to establish his own team, Esmond stopped off in Delhi on his way back from Nepal and clearly believed he had established a very solid working relationship with Bhandari. From what he said, I have little doubt that it was entirely because of his persuasion that J R himself then went to India, and agreed there to enter into negotiations in Bhutan with the various terrorist groups, a position he had firmly refused to contemplate just a few months earlier.
But, sadly, Esmond’s efforts did not bear fruit. He was not a member of the delegation when preliminary talks commenced in July 1985. Of course this may have been because he was ill, gravely ill, for he died two months later after an operation in Texas. But when we spoke on the side verandah, he had expected to lead the delegation. Given his brilliance, and the convergence of views he thought he had achieved with Bhandari, he must have been deeply disappointed when J R sent Harry Jayewardene instead as leader of the delegation, together with a collection of comparative chauvinists, with no political power but a built in aversion to any compromise.
But this was J R. Over the previous few months, in addition to his threat to boycott SAARC, he had decided to lease land near Trincomalee to the Americans to use for the Voice of America, and had used the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s visit, to open the dam on the Mahaweli that Britain had financed, to make a speech in which he congratulated Britain on her readiness to despatch troops to other countries to ‘help preserve democracy’ as he put it. He added that Sri Lanka too was suffering from a threat to democracy and that he required help. This was not of course a direct request for military assistance, but it could easily have been construed as one, especially in the light of Foreign Minister Hameed’s attempt in 1983 to invoke the 1947 Defence Agreement in case of invasion by India.
Entertainingly, when an Indian journalist reported that Jayawardene had requested troops, he grew very testy and the government declared its determination to prosecute. The journalist was interrogated by the police and then charged, whatever crime that consisted of, with refusing to sign the statement put before him, and was accordingly prevented for some time from leaving the country.
So, though Esmond may have thought, naively, that he had persuaded J R to see the light, in going to Delhi and agreeing to negotiations in Bhutan, it was not really surprising that those negotiations came to nothing. J R now, having had to move away from the tainted Cyril Mathew, ensured dissension by sending as official delegates H L de Silva and S L Gunasekara and Gomin Dayasiri who had made very clear their aversion to the sort of compromise made essential by the previous antics of Mathew which J R had encouraged.
I did not see Esmond after he was confronted with this evidence of bad faith on the part of the man he had served so faithfully, with such tragic consequences for himself and the country, over so long a period. I had gone to England in the middle of June, for the last long stint of research I was to do at Oxford, ensconced again in my old second year rooms, my home when I was eighteen, the happiest time of my life. The world seemed my oyster then, and I was in those same rooms 12 years later when I received copies of my first novel, Acts of Faith, published in Delhi in 1985.
But the novel was not a reason for unalloyed joy. There was a character in it that had some similarities to Esmond and, though I thought there were sufficient differences for it not to seem a portrait, I gathered from my mother that he had taken it amiss. Diana Captain, who had known the family intimately for half a century, told me later that he had said, ruefully, ‘I thought he was one of my admirers.’ And things were made worse by the fact that he was ill, and he went away to Texas and died there before I could meet him again and assure him of my continuing affection.
I was working in Oxford on Paul Scott, whom I continue to think the most important and interesting English writer of the latter part of the last century. As always, though it did not solve the problem of feeling upset about him being hurt, when I could not and never could explain, I found some solace in literature, in Scott’s account of the great dilemma of the Raj, when people with good intentions found themselves having to support monsters with whom, for initially understandable reasons, they had felt some solidarity, only to be drawn into excesses themselves. If, as I believe was the case with Esmond at the end, they are aware of the ambiguity of their positions, and try albeit without much success to reiterate the values they began with, one has to be positive about them. And so, along with Guy Perron,
I understood the comic dilemma of the raj - the dilemma of men who hoped to inspire trust but couldn’t even trust themselves. The air around us and in the grounds of the summer residence was soft, pungent with aromatic gums, but melancholy - charged with this self-mistrust and the odour of an unreality which only exile made seem real. I had an almost irrepressible urge to burst out laughing. I fought it because he would have misinterpreted it. But I would have been laughing for him. I suppose that to laugh for people, to see the comic side of their lives when they can’t see it for themselves, is a way of expressing affection for them; and even admiration - of a kind - for the lives they try so seriously to lead.
By the eighties, the world of Lakmahal was a world in exile, in the new dispensation that, not only J R, but the whole thrust of society after independence, had promoted. There was much to commend, much to reprehend in the changes, and in the responses to them. There were those like Lakshman who stayed firm by what they believed in, there were others like J R who betrayed every positive value. To condemn those who floated in between, rather than to feel for them and try to understand, would have been a betrayal as much as J R’s, an acceptance of the world of binary opposites he had perpetrated.