It was on that trip to England in 1983 that I first began to speak publicly on the problems in Sri Lanka. The talks, at Oxford and at the LSE, had been arranged by friends, but I also felt a certain responsibility regarding the country itself, so sadly traduced now. I was particularly upset that there seemed only two opposing views of what had happened. One was what I saw as the standard UNP view, namely that we were a country developing rapidly after years of socialist stultification, and had to face problems from spoilers. The recent events were simply a reaction to the excesses of Tamil terrorists, though they had been exploited by Marxists, whereas the government itself was not racist at all.
The contrary view was that Sri Lanka was irredeemably riven by tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The former had consistently treated the latter badly, and the recent brutalities were of a piece with the discrimination and violence that not just governments but Sinhalese generally had exhibited towards Tamils ever since independence.
I tried to indicate that the truth was somewhat different, that there had been discrimination but it had sprung from egalitarian ideals that were callous rather than wicked, and all this was very different from the recent instances of state sponsored violence that were of a piece, if more brutal, with what the government had done to other opponents over the last couple of years. However the bitterness of those who had suffered, or had felt the suffering of their kinsfolk, could not be reasoned with. It was clear that this was a watershed in the country’s history, and so it has proved, the emotions roused by what happened in July 1983 continuing to haunt us still.
Reading through the diary I wrote at the time, published later in the second volume of the New Lankan Review, I realize that it was then that I decided I would stay on in Sri Lanka. I had carefully preserved my right of residence in Britain, but despite or perhaps because of the horrors the country had undergone, I made up my mind not to hanker after getting back to Oxford. I had loved the place, and love it still, with a passion, but I wrote about ‘knowing that I had to force myself away again’. More importantly perhaps, I had written of a trip I had made out of Colombo a month after the riots, to Balangoda as it happened, the area in which I was much later to work, that ‘one felt much better, rooted once again to the land, despite the traumas it had undergone…This was a land to which one could, and would, always hopefully return.’ I have left the last comma where it is in the text, though I am not sure whether there should instead have been two, to emphasize the penultimate word in the sentence.
So I came back in the middle of October, to find that Lakshman was in the cardiology unit. I was told he as recovering, and had wanted to see me, but my grandmother dissuaded me from going. She was fearful I think that he would talk too much. So I stayed away and, before we could meet, he died, on Sunday October 23rd.
He had indeed died for his country. My mother told me that he was often in tears after his return. He had told me in England that he would take things slowly, but he had changed his mind, and when my mother pleaded with him, his reaction was that there was no time. He understood that it is not those who suffer who counsel slowness and that, as time passes without action, bitterness and despair increase.
His death was felt immensely at Lakmahal. My grandmother had adored him, and having to look after him, as she thought, had given her a strong sense of purpose. She seemed much more vulnerable after that, which led to my being less aggressive with her when we disagreed. Previously I could turn to Lakshman to explain, when I thought something was wrong, and he would do his best to address the issue, confessing sometimes though that he did not dare to upset her. After his death, I knew that she was essentially alone, for all human beings derive strength from someone whose primary concern is themselves. I realized this myself later when my father, in a mood of unusual vulnerability, told me once when I was about to go abroad, that I was all he had. This was nonsense, for my sister has done much more to keep him comfortable than I am capable of, but I realized that he meant that she had other priorities, whereas he and I just had each other.
My mother too felt Lakshman’s loss deeply. They were very similar in character, of outstanding integrity and kindness, and growing up together, as the two youngest in a family of very strong personalities, I think they had always depended on each other. Lakshman had also helped my mother in her dealings with my grandmother, and she had relished the few intervals of freedom she had from the latter’s overwhelming presence, when Lakshman took his mother to Kurunegala. My mother told me once that he was the only one who had understood, and I could see in the years that followed how her immense sense of loyalty to her mother prevented her from seeking solace elsewhere when problems arose.
Though Lakshman had not lived there for years, coming to stay for just a few days each month, ‘Lakmahal’ had always been his home, with a room still designated as his own. It was good then that the household was still full, with Radha and also my father’s niece Theja, in addition to my parents and my grandmother and myself.
But my sister, back recently from America to a baptism of fire, told me that she would find it impossible to stay at Lakmahal, with its relentless social activity. Luckily our old neighbor Gajan Pathmanathan, had a flat which he kindly let her use. He was in Cambridge at the time, sent there for his doctorate by the Central Bank where he worked. I had seen him there during my visit, and I realized then that he was not likely to come back, and in fact he moved on to the World Bank. I could not but sympathize. His wife said that a couple of her cousins, who had found shelter when the attacks started, had gone on the Friday, when they thought things had settled down, to check on their homes. They had never come back.