In addition to my work for remuneration, I did a lot of outside literary work in 1983. I was President of the English Association, and we began active collaboration with the British Council, which had just opened a new Multi-Purpose Hall at the premises in Alfred House Gardens into which it had recently moved. I was encouraged to develop cultural programmes by Zem Sally, who had been appointed Public Relations Officer. In addition to her work with the media, she wanted good use made of the Hall for cultural activities, and we developed a productive collaboration.
I continued too with my work at the SLBC, shifting between the ‘Arts Scene’ and ‘Literary Quarter’. On one of these programmes I interviewed Shiva Naipaul, who had been sent to me by Ian Goonetilleke, who had seen me as a protégé of sorts after my resignation. Richard’s fantastic radio voice also led to him being asked by Jayantha Wijeratne to produce a programme of satirical entertainment, which was called ‘Left Luggage’. This was hilarious, and I still recall one episode in which they did a skit on the advertising craze that had recently taken over our increasingly commercialized world, by singing the praises of Apsara products.
I continued to go often to Kurunegala to write. Lakshman was away, having been advised to take things slow after his first heart problem, but in any case I stayed not with him, but at the Old Place, the old family house that was gradually falling into disrepair, with only my mother’s cousin Lakshmi in residence. She coped admirably and, though my visits caused her extra work, I think she enjoyed them, for they were a break from the monotony of the decade and a half she spent there by herself in that rambling mansion.
It was in 1983 that I also properly discovered another aunt who was also to be an excellent companion over the years. This was Ena de Silva, the daughter of my grandmother’s cousin, also a Kurunegala connection. She asked me to come and stay, intrigued I later gathered because of what she had heard about the goings on at S. Thomas’. Having been a rebel all her life, she was delighted to find at last someone else in the family who was prepared to go out on a limb, unlike the bulk of her relations.
I went up in May with Nigel Hatch, and had the indignity of her staff assuming that he was the relation. Nigel was extremely good-looking in those days, with a resemblance to Lakshman, and her staff had naturally assumed that the dark person who accompanied him could not be a well-bred Kandyan relation. Ena and I however got on famously from the start, talking right through the long expedition on which she decided to take us, to the Sinharaja and then Deniyaya and back on the Walawe route, with a fantastic picnic cooked on the shores of the reservoir. Naturally she travelled with a cook and a large entourage, though we all had to sleep together, except for the driver and the boy of all work who kipped down in the car, in the one room available at the Deniyaya Resthouse.
That was bliss, and the experience was repeated in another form a few weeks later, when I had a friend from England over. My sister too had just got back after her doctorate and post-doctoral work, and we went to the Sinharaja again, and then all the way across to Panama, with another lovely lunch cooked on the bank of the Hada Oya. Nick was bemused, but coped valiantly, having never previously experienced insect life in profusion. We took him also to the ancient cities, with breakfast on the shore of the Parakrama Samudraya.
My writing meanwhile was proceeding apace, and I decided that I would start a magazine for English Writing. This was the New Lankan Review, and I discovered now the sheer joy of going into print. The job was done by Paul Samuel, husband of one of my mother’s fellow Guiders. He owned the Jubilee Press in Lauries Road, a small outfit that catered to many distinguished clients, even I believe doing one or other of the Royal-Thomian Big Match Souvenirs. He was a saintly man, like his wife, and put up with all my demands, while I for my part endured his infinite delays. I realized in time that, while causing one maximum worry, as he undertook other tasks in between, he always delivered on time.
The British Council agreed to launch the magazine for me, and this was done in early July, on the very night that Nick arrived. It was an impressive occasion, with Richard and Yolande Abeywira reading brilliantly. I had wonderful reactions for a story called ‘The Lady Hippopotamus’, based on the sexual excesses of a lady who had worked at S. Thomas’; though Steve de la Zylwa rather embarrassed me by shouting out her name when the thrust of the story became clear.
The climax of the evening was however a poem that had not even been included in the review, having been sent to me just recently. This was ‘Nallur’ by Jean Arasanayagam, whose poetry had taken on new life after she experienced for herself the attacks on Tamils which the government had embarked on. We had not in Colombo really experienced the enormity of the 1981 violence, but Jean in Kandy, being married to a Tamil though Burgher herself, had seen what was happening.
The poem I had included was ‘Political Prisoner’, written for Steve Biko, but obviously relevant too to Sri Lanka. ‘Nallur’ was less cerebral, an outpouring of passion based on the festivities at the ancient temple, and Richard’s reading was electrifying.
The British Council had a reception afterwards on its lawn, and it was great to feel appreciated again, after the sidelining of recent months. I have no doubt that the link with the Council helped because, however obsessed Colombo was with old boy networks, a British imprimatur trumped all that.
Afterwards I went to Richard’s, to drink and exult into the early hours. Nick collapsed early, but we were accompanied by Chanaka Wickremesinghe, the son of a distant cousin of my mother, whom I had first known as a schoolboy when I went up to Oxford. We had got on very well from the start, since he enjoyed climbing on my roof in College as much as I did, though I had to restrain him from waving at the Master as he crossed the quadrangle below.
He was now in Sri Lanka before going to University, teaching as arranged by Lakshman at S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa. Though in Colombo he stayed with a closer cousin of his father who was married to an Illangakoon, he appreciated I think what I had been trying to do at Mount, since he realized how appalling was the education the Thomian system provided. Incidentally, one of my proposals had been closer cooperation between the four Thomian schools, with different emphases, one of those in the hills perhaps being turned into a proper boarding school, on the British model or the schools like Doon in India that had much more successfully than us survived the passing of the Raj. Needless to say, that paper too was ignored.
After much drinking, and much self-congratulation, we staggered off to bed. None of us had thought about the implications of the stunning impact of ‘Nallur’.