Kurunagala was a world apart in the sixties, when I stayed at the Old Place, a large rambling house, with different wings for the two households it contained. These were set on either side of the large dim drawing room, which was hung with gloomy black and white reproductions, including of Franz Hals’ ‘Laughing Cavalier’ and two Pre-Raphaelite pictures of scenes from Dante. These now hang in the lower room of my country cottage, where on a tiny scale I have tried to reproduce the compartmentalized household I loved so much at the Old Place.
The ‘Laughing Cavalier’ has vanished, as has another picture my father recalls fondly, of a nymph sitting on top of a globe. The upright piano, on which I played ‘Chopsticks’ and strange mixtures of my own composition, is now with my cousin Ranil since our sisters, who presided over the division of goods after Lakshmi’s death, decided that his wife at least was musical. The other prized relict of Old Place, an elaborately worked glass lamp, was given to me, and it now adorns the upper room of the cottage, and has to be locked away when I am not there in case monkeys invade through the windows. These have neither glass nor curtains, only bars, so that there is little between me and the river and the trees. The pictures were not wanted by anybody, and it is only recently that I have managed to rescue them, along with the oval portrait of John Marcellus.
Behind the drawing room at Old Place was the large dining room, with open verandahs on either side, that gave on to long open wings stretching down into the garden. On one side were a couple of rooms for visitors, with a dark cool double sectioned bathroom at the end. This had, in the further section, two old thunderboxes in addition to the modern commode. I could not resist using one once, to the immense horror of my family.
In the courtyard was a deep well, and a lemon grass tree that provided in abundance one of the secrets of Kurunagala cooking. On the other side of the courtyard were the two kitchens, Ida’s and Leo’s, and quarters for their staff, the open verandahs on either side usually filled with unhusked coconuts. The courtyard was open at the west and the gardens stretched from there down to paddy fields that also belonged to us. In the sixties though, much land near to the town was sold or, sometimes, given away, since Leo was a loyal supporter of the UNP and, when a UNP politician wanted land for a market, he could not but oblige. Lakshmi continued for years afterwards to cherish a healthy dislike of that particular politician, whom she dismissed as a time-server.
There was a large garden in front too, with the tall mara tree towering over Young Edward’s Annexe on one side, and on the other the old tennis court. Old Edward had entertained lavishly, and tennis parties had been his specialty. He was a great sportsman in other ways too, for there is a splendid photograph of him and his two daughters and what looks like a foreigner with bicycles. I have long assumed these were the first bicycles introduced into Ceylon, or at least into the Kurunagala District, and tried to picture him and Eva and Ida trundling along quiet country roads. Sadly, by the time I got to Kurunagala, the tennis parties had long ceased, and the court was never used, though during my brief stab at being athletic we tried to play tennequoits there.
By the late sixties, the rest of the family hardly went to Kurunagala, except for my grandmother, and she would stay with her son the Bishop. So I was pretty much frequently on my own at the Old Place, with Leo and Lakshmi and Ida, visiting the latter twice a day and being treated to ginger beer and Dundee Cake. I could not think this appealed to anyone except Ida, with her devotion to anything British, but in 1984, when I was at Wilpattu with Ena and Richard’s mother Manorani, I found that they too remembered that strange confection, and fell in eagerly with the suggestion of buying a sample we found in a small boutique. With those two, of course, there were exotic liqueurs at hand too, and that particular Dundee Cake, the last I have eaten, was doused in Green and Gold Chartreuse.
Leo and Lakshmi had a dependable old cook, though they also, for a few months, hired a sophisticated character who produced excellent courses for dinner. He had impeccable references from planters, but vanished before long, taking some of the silver that used to sit in the drawing room. As the years passed, and security became a problem, it became necessary to keep the drawing room shut, and to wall in the verandahs. The only exception was the veranda on the outer side of the visitors’ rooms, and I would sometimes spend the afternoon there reading, while the rest of the household slept.
Lakshmi had a wonderful collection of books, many of them novels that would have been considered risqué in the fifties. It was through her that I was introduced to Collete and Alberto Moravia and the ribald world of Gabriel Chevalier. Leo, despite the Ryde Gold Medal for Latin, had much simpler tastes, and confined himself mainly to the London ‘Daily Mirror’, which he had sent out in weekly sets, bound together in lurid yellow paper. I devoured these too, and though I was most concerned with the comics – the ‘Perishers’ were a particular favourite, with Boot the dog and his cousin who was a BA (Calcutta) (failed) – I think I grew most familiar with what might be termed adult reading material through the sensational and sexy news in which that paper specialized.
Leo’s other principal reading materials were racing papers. He never bet, but much enjoyed making predictions, and comparing his with those of his boon companion Dr Somasundaram, understandably so because he was generally more successful. The two of them also had great fun discussing the way horses were named, pointing out to my untutored mind the way in which characteristics of the names of mother and father would be combined in the offspring’s name.
Dr Soma would come to visit twice every day, in the mornings for beer, in the evenings for something stronger. He usually had arrack, which Leo did not like, so there was a strange ritual whereby the bottle of arrack was kept out in the small drawing room where Dr Soma was entertained, while Leo kept a bottle of whiskey in his bedroom and went in to fill his glass. I was deemed too young for either, and was given sherry instead, though in the mornings I joined them in beer, having graduated early on from shandy.
I was told that, when we were young, my father had allowed us to have sips of alcohol, in the hope that we would dislike it and be turned off the stuff. The experiment had worked with my brother and sister, but it seems I took to the stuff like a duck to water. Though my parents were not entirely amused, they did however indulge Leo, and had no objection to him offering me the occasional drink. This happened at Lakmahal too, when Leo and Lakshmi came to Colombo, but in my mind, or perhaps in my heart, the idea of pre-prandial drinks with one or two friends is inextricably associated with the rituals of the Old Place.