Bambaragoda, Edward Goonewardene, Federated Malay States, General English Language Training Programme, George Eliot, John & Co. Ceylon, Kurunagala, Leo Moonemalle Goonewardene, Lucille Aluwihare, Marguerita Batuwantudawe, Old Place, R J Hallyell, Royal Thomian, Ryde Gold Medal, S. Kurita, S. Thomas’, Seremban, Thorayaya, Trinity College
My favourite in my childhood of my grandmother’s family was Leo, the closest to her in age and the only other of her brothers and sisters to marry. He was two years older than her, and had been at S. Thomas at first, and was then sent to Trinity since it was thought he was not studying. He thus lost his chance to play in the Royal Thomian match, but succeeded in winning the Ryde Gold Medal for Latin at his new school. This astonished me, since I had never thought of him as in any sense interested in intellectual pursuits. On the other hand perhaps it was not difficult for him to shine, since Trinity too had not seemed to lay much stress on the life of the mind.
In all fairness I should note that that has changed, and I do not say this just because I now serve on the Trinity Board of Governors. I still recall my dismay when I found S. Thomas’ totally outclassed in a debate, way back in 1982, when I was engaged in my quixotic effort to clean up the College. I was scathing about the lackadaisical performance of boys who should have done much better, but I suppose I should not have blamed them. Those were the days when our examination results were appalling but the Board accepted the view that the boys came from a class that did not need to go to University.
Preserved from Leo’s schooldays are five postcards, with pictures of his schoolfriends in a custom that seems to have been common in those days, for the cards are of different sorts. Two are sent by the same person, an R J Hallyell, if I have read the signature correctly. The card is of the same design on the side for communication, but with two different pictures of Halyell on the other. He stands stiffly in one, in an oval frame, against an outdoor background that seems to have a spire as well an ornamental vase on a balustrade. He sits on a table in a rectangular frame in the other, more relaxed, but only slightly.
There is another, sent ‘To dearest Leo With Love’ from a childlike character called I think Summa, on a card produced by John & Co. Ceylon. There is another, with no name or writing, from a white-suited young man sitting on a desk with beside it a potted plant, apparently signifying exalted employment. And my favourite is a card sent from the Federated Malay States in November 1917, the photo produced by S. Kurita of Seremban. It depicts a youngster in police uniform, putteed and belted, with a splendid hat. The tunic, under which a tightly knotted woolen tie can be seen, has four resplendent pockets.
There is a message on this card, straight out of those wonderful schoolboy adventure stories that characterized and perhaps created the Empire – ‘Well Leo Old Chap what ails you? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” but here the reverse has taken place I fear. What about your photo now?’ The card is initialed, not signed, and I suppose I have neither reason nor the capacity now to find out the identity of the writer.
Five cards that have been preserved, and a name at the top of a board in the Trinity College Hall, are all then that remain of Leo’s schooldays. Of no significance, one realizes, but I am reminded of the conclusion of ‘Middlemarch’, when George Eliot talks of the unknown lives in backwaters, after she has illustrated the range of emotions and experiences that one such backwater encompasses.
Leo seems to have gone back to S. Thomas’ for a bit, for the card was sent to Trinity, but then redirected to St Thomas’ College, Mutwal, Colombo. Be that as it may, soon enough he had gone off to join the police as a Sub-Inspector. He served in a couple of stations away from home, but then his father and Hugh died in the same month in 1925, George having gone seven years earlier. With his eldest brother kept at arm’s length by the ladies of the family, following their father’s diktat, Leo had to leave the police and come back and look after the estates.
He married Marguerita Batuwantudawe, who for some reason I have never fathomed was always known as Dottie. She was a few months older than him, and I gather she ruled him firmly. Life could not have been easy for him at Old Place, with his mother Ada and his two much older sisters all in residence too. The last three had for over a quarter of a century seen him as the youngest, and the least significant, of several brothers. Given their strong personalities, which must have suffered some suppression while old Edward Goonewardene dominated the family, they would not have treated Leo, who was much more gentle anyway, with anything like the same respect in his new role of man of the family.
I understood none of this of course in childhood, when we were the best of friends. Dotty had died before I was born and, though their daughter Lakshmi was also a strong personality, obviously the relationship between her and her father was more balanced. I spent many happy holidays with them in Kurunagala, reading voraciously for much of the time, but also occasionally going out with Leo on his visits to the estates.
He ran these with great diligence, not only for his immediate family, but also for some other of his Moonmalle relations. Ena, daughter of Lucille Aluwihare, still recalls the meticulous accounts he used to send them, written in green ink in his peculiarly sloping handwriting. He also used an old typewriter, and in the late morning he would sit in his office room, outside the main house off a side verandah, thumping out letters.
I remember now only the names Bambaragoda and Thorayaya of the various estates he looked after for all of us. The latter was largely my mother’s, and it was decided to sell it in 1971 when I had got into Oxford. The buyer evidently cheated us, by not paying much more than the advance, but as it happened we had done relatively well. Soon after that land reform was instituted, and we would I think have got much less, as state compensation. My father certainly had no regrets, when later buyers came to him with sad stories of how they had paid the dealer who bought from us, but had not got proper deeds, about doing what he could to help.
In the nineties, when I was in charge of the General English Language Training Programme, I found that one of the Centres was a Thorayaya school. I imagined when I inspected it that I could recognize the landscape from my childhood visits. Sadly, the Centre had few students and I had to close it, and I have not been back to the area since.