Mrs Bandaranaike took defeat badly. She promptly changed tack within the party, and began the movement leftward that finally gave control of the party over to Chandrika. Sunethra encouraged her in this, for she told Chanaka, on the morning after the election, that the only hope now was to bring Chandrika back. Chanaka vehemently contested this suggestion, and thought that Anura’s position should be strengthened. Later he felt that this position contributed to the decision by Mrs Bandaranaike not to put him in Parliament on the National List as had been promised.
Anura too contributed himself to his final sidelining, in part because of his lack of energy, but also through his innate softness. When the opportunity came for him to be General Secretary of the SLFP, his mother left the meeting in high dudgeon, and he promptly got upset and agreed to a compromise. Dharmasiri Senanayake however, who was appointed, was a solid supporter of traditional SLFP socialism, and he lent himself to the maneuvers which led to a renewal of the alliance with the old left, and the return of Chandrika in triumph.
Chanaka however found himself courted by Premadasa who I believe appreciated the contribution he made to the All Party Conference that had been called. In time too Premadasa showed himself much more competent as well as more inclusive than we had previously thought. Though 1989 was an awful year, in which, after an attempt at a Ceasefire, he moved to crushing the JVP insurrection he had inherited, subsequently he showed himself able to compromise.
He did this also with the Indians, whom he had resented after the Indo-Lankan Accord. This resentment had led him to try to work with the LTTE, but after they broke negotiations off and brutally massacred the policemen who had been persuaded to surrender, he realized what he was up against, and soon mended fences with India. He was helped in this by the excellent Ambassador he appointed, Neville Kanakaratne. The post had initially been offered to my father, who was however unable to accept because my grandmother was by then very frail and my mother would not leave home. However my father knew his limitations, and said that Neville would be much better anyway. What he did regret was London, though he understood my mother’s position and made no attempt to persuade her.
Those were sad days at ‘Lakmahal’, as the once commanding figure of my grandmother succumbed to age. Her sight worsened, and it was painful to see her registering how inexorable the decline was. She had a series of attendants on whom she was increasingly dependent, which was painful for someone who had prided herself always on her independence. And when her hearing too got worse, and people found it difficult to talk to her, the isolation in which she found herself was pathetic.
The relentless passage of time came home to me when I asked my mother’s old friend Diana Captain to come and spend more time with her. ‘I’m a heart patient too,’ Diana said sadly. ‘And I just can’t shout.’
It was incredibly tough on my mother. The last of her brothers had died some years earlier, and she had to take on sole responsibility for her mother while her own health was deteriorating. She and her brother Tissa, she had told us, had decided that one would inherit the diabetes and the other the heart condition that had led to their father’s early death in 1945. Tissa had duly got diabetes, as did both his brothers, but in his case an accident and an injury that would not be cured led to death at 37, way back in 1961. Just over twenty years later my mother had had her first heart attack, soon after her youngerst brother’s. He died in 1983 and her elder brother, after an operation in Texas, in 1985.
‘Lakmahal’ was a bleak place then in the early nineties. My brother had gone to Hong Kong, which was in one sense a relief, since my parents had basically had the burden of looking after his son, while he and his wife spent years in England pursuing further qualifications. Then, soon after they came back, they had a daughter, which meant the son was back on my parents’ hands.
But the absence of the family left a certain emptiness in the house. My sister had finally produced a child of her own by then, but she was far less dependent on my parents and brought her son round less often. That however was always a treat for my mother, and it was delightful to see the way she would play with him, totally relaxed in a manner one rarely saw in her as she felt increasingly oppressed by her responsibilities. One of my saddest memories is of the first time Ravi came home after my mother had died. He had brought a set of those sticks one has to pick up one by one without disturbing any of the others, a game that she and he used to play together with intense concentration. I tried to be a substitute, but his lips were quivering, and it was clearly no good. The incident was never repeated, but it has stayed in my mind.
My mother’s cousin Lakshmi was a great help with my grandmother in that she would come and sit with her for hours. However her presence was felt less than when she would come from Kurunagala, where she had stayed by herself for well over a decade, in the house in which my grandmother had grown up. After her father died, in 1971, she had intended to move to Colombo, but it took ages for her to find suitable land and build a house to her satisfaction, and it was only just before the JVP insurrection broke out that she finally moved. After that, though she lived near and came home regularly, she was no longer part of the household as she had been when she stayed with us on visits to Colombo.
My nuns too, as I called the two young ladies who had lived in ‘Lakmahal’ during the early part of the eighties, had left. One was my cousin, the daughter of my father’s middle brother who had died young, so he had taken on responsibility for the children. He had sent Theja to England to follow a course in nursing, and she had come back and was in fact working at the Jospeh Fraser when my uncle Lakshman died there in 1983. She used to stay at home when not on duty, but then in 1985 she had got married.
The other nun was a Tamil girl who had been with my mother at Girl Guide Headquarters when the riots broke out in 1983, and had come home then and stayed. But she too finally went to Australia with her family. So, in the last years of my grandmother’s life,’ Lakmahal’ finally ceased to be quite the thoroughfare it had been for the first fifty years of its existence.