Bandaranaike, Church of Ceylon, Cyril Abeynaike, Elephant House, Hewadiwela Christians, J R Jayewardene, Kurunagala, Leo Moonemalle Goonewardene, Lucille Moonemalle, Old Place, Phyllis Ratwatte, Sir Richard Aluwihare, St. Anthony’s Kochchikade
Apart from the joys of staying at the Old Place during the holidays, we also had the pleasure of Leo and Lakshmi coming down practically every fortnight to Colombo to stay with us for a long weekend. They came in his old Humber Hawk, which seemed to us a very grand car, stopping on the way into Colombo at St. Anthony’s Kochchikade, a ritual doubtless instituted by Dottie, who had been a Catholic. That is why Leo and Dottie, and now Lakshmi, are not buried near the rest of the family, but lie in the Catholic section of the cemetery in Kurunagala.
Leo was not especially religious, but Lakshmi was, and was delighted when I decided once to go with her to the Catholic Church at Christmas. My uncle the Bishop was deeply upset that I had not been to his cathedral that day, and was only slightly mollified when I said I had gone to a Catholic Mass at midnight. I suspect he understood that I was getting tired of church-going, and was more interested in spectacle rather than dogma. This has lasted, contrary to his hope that it would be a temporary phase, which he said comfortingly that most young people went through, though I had started it earlier than most.
In later years it was good music that attracted me, but in Kurunagala it was the serried masses of the faithful, and the realization that Catholicism embraced a range of society, whereas the Anglicans, members of the Church of Ceylon as it was termed, were emphatically more exclusive. My poor uncle, like his predecessor, did his best to involve rural communities, in particular what were known as the Hewadiwela Christians, who had I think converted initially for caste reasons, but in the end it was Colombo that would make the running for the Anglicans. Certainly his greatest disappointment was the rejection of Church Union by the diehards in Colombo, with his old mentor Cyril Abeynaike failing to take the firm stand my uncle urged.
In addition to St. Anthony’s, and of much more interest to us children in those days, was the stop Leo made at Elephant House, to pick up a box of cakes for us. We were given what seemed a massive selection, meant to last a few days, though we always managed to finish the box in a day, or two at most. I still remember the chocolate éclairs and the vanilla slices, which went first, leaving the cheesecakes and fruit concoctions for the elders. I still remember the excitement I felt when we heard the car come in, late of a Saturday morning, and Leo would encourage me to sample a cake or two, and then we would settle down to beer.
I also realize now that perhaps my childish excitement caused Leo too pleasure. I have the same experience now from the other side, as it were, for when I go down to my cottage I am greeted with evident delight by the younger child there. This may have something to do with the chocolates I take whenever I have travelled, or the condensed milk I sometimes buy, as a rare treat for both of us, excusing my own greed through his pleasures. But I think there is genuine affection too, and when I wonder whether that is silly, I remember my own devotion to Leo, and the glee with which I welcomed his visits.
In the early days Leo also used to bring a few chickens, which we kept in a coop behind the house, to be killed and eaten one by one. We had an old gardener who seemed to relish this task, who had come from India in the days when there were no restrictions on such movements. By the sixties however his continuing stay might well have seemed illicit, and we used occasionally to have to fight off efforts to have him deported. He had no connections with anyone I believe, apart from us, and the family of Phyllis Ratwatte, daughter of Lucille Moonemalle and Sir Richard Aluwihare. It was the Ratwattes who had passed him on to us, and he used to visit them regularly, with detours on the way back to the taverns which he frequented excessively.
He was the first person I saw drunk, and he could also turn violent when as children we tormented his beloved cats. Despite his skill with the knife and chickens, he loved animals and kept several cats in his room at the back. He also assiduously looked after my first dog, who had to stay outside because my grandmother was frightened of dogs and I had not yet managed to persuade her to let me keep one in my room.
I have a picture still of Rover on a leash held by Thotte, as he was called, perhaps after the thottams, the communal residential areas of his community, perhaps after the thota, the jetty at which he had arrived many years previously. He would walk Rover morning and evening, a sight which used to make me feel guilty towards the end, since by then I had had first one dog, and then another, upstairs in my room. Bingo got on well with Rover, but he did not last long, and TIko, a Japanese Spitz who realized he was exotic, used to bark furiously at Rover from the balcony. I used to feel bad about this, though Rover for his part bore no grudge, and continued to treat me as his master, whenever I made time to see him, which was not as often as I should have. He even managed to convey the impression that I was not just second in his affections to Thotte, a trait that still touches me.
He died dramatically, after having been fed by Thotte from a dish that we had put aside after finding someone meddling with it during a dinner party. That was I think the grandest dinner given at Lakmahal in my lifetime, with Mrs Bandaranaike, who had just ceased being Prime Minister, and J R Jayewardene who was considered the brains of the new government. The man who managed to walk into the pantry and was found with his hands in one of the dishes of meat never answered to questions about his origin, and was deemed a lunatic; the failure of the police to pursue the case strengthens my belief now that this was part of a vast conspiracy against Mrs Bandaranaike.
But it may well have been my fault and my sister’s that the case could not be pursued, for we absolutely refused to let Rover be cut up so that an autopsy could be performed. He was duly buried in the garden, though I cannot now remember where, which is shaming. Thotte perhaps should have been laid to rest there too, in the garden he looked after so well, at least initially, but I believe his ashes were finally scattered in the sea, which is what my family assumed his religion dictated.
I was not there when this happened, having gone away to university in 1971. Soon after that, he had fallen down when drunk, on one of his peregrinations, and was found dead. He had been ailing, having to be hospitalized on occasion before that, so there seemed no need of an autopsy, and he was duly cremated. The ashes I am told were kept in our library for some time, to my grandmother’s horror.
Not I suppose coincidentally, for they were the two oldest men who were part of Lakmahal, his death occurred soon after Leo’s, which was at Lakmahal, less than three months after I had left. He had had heart trouble on and off over the previous few years, and he knew he would not last long. After seeing me off at the airport, he had told Lakshmi that he did not think he would see me again.