I was out of Colombo when the storm broke, in Bentota with Nick for the last few days of his holiday. We were cushioned therefore from the worst of it, and only knew what was happening when we heard people talking at the table next to us during dinner on the Sunday.
Those were days in which getting telephone calls was not easy, but I managed to call home and found that the house was full of Tamil friends who had sought refuge there. I was told I might as well stay away, for convenience, and I did, for three days more, in increasing alarm.
There was no curfew in Bentota, and we were able to walk around, which allowed me to see truckloads of thugs moving to the Western Province in the next day or two. They seemed to have no difficulty in crossing the bridge into an area supposedly under curfew.
Nick was worried too, and anxious to see whether he should go back to England immediately, so we finally caught a bus on the Thursday morning. There was chaos at home, with people sleeping everywhere, but my parents as usual remained calm, and managed to feed everyone.
Colombo seemed to have settled by then, and that evening JR finally appeared on television to address the nation. The Tamil friends who were staying at home gathered round the television anxiously, but they were rudely disappointed. JR in essence blamed the Tamils for what had occurred, claimed he had been weak in not dealing more firmly with terrorism, and announced the introduction of yet another constitutional amendment, one which seemed designed principally to drive democratic Tamil politicians out of Parliament.
I have never forgotten the bitterness the Tamils with us felt. Instead of calming things down, as they had hoped, JR seemed to have given the stature of patriots to the monsters who had created the mayhem of the previous few days.
Nick was obviously finding things difficult in a crowded household, apart from his nervousness about what would happen next. Despite my reassurances that the worst was over, he was anxious to get away. To relieve my parents too of having an additional dimension to think about, we decided to head off the next day to Negombo, and stay there till he could get a flight out.
We left early the next morning, dimly discerning some sort of confusion in the Fort as our bus was leaving. I was horrified to hear people next to us exulting in the damage that had been done, and excoriating those who had given shelter to Tamils. Their view seemed to be that such people too should be attacked in the future.
Safely ensconced in a hotel in Negombo, I managed to call home, and found that chaos had broken out that day again, obviously fuelled by what was easily interpreted as JR’s call to arms. That was Black Friday, as it came to be called, when there was greater loss of life than had occurred in the previous days, given that earlier it seemed that the goon squads had been instructed only to destroy, not to kill.
The horrors of that day led finally to saner people in government taking charge, and from the Sunday onward we had a chorus of Ministers claiming that the violence had been perpetrated by Marxist parties. The Communist Party and Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s NLSSP were banned, along with the JVP. The first two protested vehemently, pointing out that they had never been racists as JR was, and soon enough the proscription was lifted. However the JVP took to the ban like a duck to water, and began again the underground activities that had led to their previous attempt at violent revolution.
We had a strange few days in Negombo, Nick obviously intensely worried, but trying to stay calm and soak up the sun which had been his original idea of what Sri Lanka was about. He managed to get a flight soon enough, and I was left to trek back to a Colombo that had changed for ever.
Little by little the people who had been with us went back to their homes, except for Radha, one of my mother’s Girl Guides, whom she had brought home with her from Head Quarters when the riots first began. Her parents lived in Mt Lavinia, and there had been I think four younger brothers at S. Thomas’ when I was Sub-Warden, bright little chaps. The rest of the family had had to move to a refugee centre as their house had been burnt, and later it seemed the landlord was in no hurry to repair the place. The family had to move into a flat which was too small to house Radha too, so she stayed with us for a couple of years more, until the whole family finally got entry into Australia.
We lived in a daze for the next few months. Classes had been desultory in the preceding weeks, as the exam neared and, though we had a few more for revision, it was clear that we felt a change was needed, to some sort of more purposeful activity. I was pleased that Radhika Coomaraswamy, who had previously accepted the government prohibition on discussion of Sri Lankan ethnic issues at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies of which she was Executive head, decided she had to do more, and helped to set up a study group to look into what had happened. Since her Board were still predominantly UNP supporters, this had to be done obliquely, so she created what was termed the Committee for Rational Development, which subsequently produced a book on their findings.
That was when I first met Dayan Jayatilleke, who dominated the group. I did not agree with all his ideas, for he was still very much a Marxist, but his essential decency came through strongly, and his horror about ethnic prejudice and oppression.
I also did more about writing on the issue, feeling somewhat ashamed that the New Lankan Review seemed so parochial in its concerns. I remember meeting with Kamala Das, whose husband had been working in Sri Lanka, and the next issue of the Review published a poem of hers on the events. Richard too, whose mother being Tamil had been in actual physical danger herself, also wrote brilliantly, and in fact won the prize for poetry that Yasmine Gooneratne had offered, deciding far away in Australia that she needed to dedicate an issue, the last as it happened, of her New Ceylon Writing, to the subject.
I was in a state of uncertainty at the time, about what I should do with my life, but thought it best to postpone any decisions until after I had been to England, which I had been planning to visit that summer. Nick’s visit had meant a postponement, but I finally set off for several weeks, returning only in the middle of October. Lakshman left England to return to Sri Lanka on the day I landed, having decided that he could not stay away at a time when he was needed. We only managed to talk on the phone, but I told him what I had heard about government involvement, which matched what he had been told too. I told him to take things easy, since he was still not fully well, but of course he ignored that caution. He was the first Sinhalese leader to go up to Jaffna after the riots, and his visit was much appreciated. But he overdid things, and was soon in hospital.