I heard the news of Leo’s death while I was in Denmark, on my way to England in an odyssey that saw me visit seven countries after my Advanced Levels in Madras, before I finally got to London. It was probably the best place and time to hear something so upsetting, for I had seen the most exciting places, lots of antiquities and art in Greece and Italy, and then exotically Prague too by road from Frankfurt, and I was exhausted. Our Danish friends were about the most comforting to stay with, and I could collapse in a home, with just the occasional visit to a museum. The frenetic activity I had engaged in over the previous weeks had tailed off, and I was ready again for domesticity and being looked after.
I went away the day I got the letter to a very minor museum and sat in the garden and grieved. The death was a shock, but not a surprise, for I had long known that the way of life I had enjoyed so much at Kurunagala was staggering to a close. Through the sixties we had seen service more difficult to obtain, the army that had cooked and cleaned for Lakshmi and Leo diminishing over the years. The food too had grown less extravagant, in part because there were fewer people to help prepare it, but also because Lakshmi had decided to take Leo’s diet in hand after he first had heart problems. Long gone then were the luscious chops and rich desserts that had made Old Place a gourmet’s delight in the early years of the decade.
And then, two months before I set off, we had had the 1971 insurgency. I had gone to Old Place for the April holidays, taking the train by myself as I had grown accustomed to doing over the last few years, to be met at the Kurunagala station, or occasionally Polgahawela. The very night I got there, all hell broke loose. Characteristically, I slept through it all, and neither Leo nor Lakshmi woke me up, though they had been up for much of the night after the firing first started near the police station, which was just a couple of streets away.
The police had held off the insurgents, and by morning Kurunagala was clearly in government hands. But the approaches were still uncertain, the area around Alawwa it seemed being particularly dangerous, and for a week and more we were not able to travel to Colombo. Telephone communication was established soon enough, and my parents felt there was no need to worry, and were quite happy for me to stay on, and so was I initially, given too that my holiday had just started.
It was a strange week, no different in one sense from previous holidays, for I read all day, and had my beer and my sherry, and even on occasion whiskey, to which I was deemed to have graduated. I visited Aunty Ida twice a day, and was surprised at how worried she seemed at what had happened. I realize now that, apart from the trauma of hearing guns firing all night, she understood better than all of us the finality with which the world she had been born into had ended. Social change had of course occurred over her eighty years, but people of her class still made decisions, even the socialist decisions she found depressing. The Prime Minister that headed the coalition with Communists and Trotskyists was after all Mrs Bandaranaike of the Ratwatte clan. But, after this, the radical measures that were contemplated, land reform, a republic, limits on ownership of houses, would be sure to be thorough, never to be reversed.
If this breach in the cocoon was private, visitors from outside made clear the scale of the violence. Apart from Leo’s regular visitors, the SLFP organizer for Kurunagala, Jaya Pathirana, who would certainly have been a senior Minister had Kurunegala not continued to return a UNP Member, dropped in frequently. Apart from his deep affection for Leo and Lakshmi, he also appreciated I think the steadiness of this world, as opposed to the revolutionary tendencies the SLFP had nurtured, but which had developed beyond its control. This was a phenomenon I was to see later in Colombo too, where the Trotskyist Neale de Alwis was more upset about JVP radicalism than more right wing politicians.
My uncle the Bishop was more sympathetic to the revolutionaries than many others, for he understood early on the caste dimension of the resentment that had thus burst into violence. Though he never swerved from the view that the state had to defend itself against such violence, which also characterized his response to Tamil radicalism a few years later, he was also categorical about the need to reduce inequalities and address real grievances. And he was also insistent on the need to abide by humanitarian values in dealing with violence, which is why he became a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement when it was set up soon afterwards, largely to deal with concerns about the way in which members of the JVP were treated after the first shock of the revolt had been dealt with.
Our other principal source of news was Derrick Nugawela, whose then wife Chuli was the daughter of Jinadasa Madawala, who lived a couple of doors down in Mihindu Mawata. He was a planter who also commanded the Volunteer Force, so he was swiftly mobilized, and was soon sent down to administer Hambantota, which was one of the worst affected areas. But in these early days he was able to travel to Kurunagala, and I believe I finally went down to Colombo with him, before the roads had been cleared for general travel.
This was a week or so after the insurgency exploded, and I really needed to get back to start studying for my Advanced Levels, which I had wholly neglected in the previous three months, after the euphoria of getting into Oxford and being treated as a sort of child prodigy, and becoming a Prefect too. But I felt afterwards that I should have perhaps stayed a bit longer with Leo and Lakshmi, given that it would be for the last time.
The rituals continued by and large to be observed in that last week, the beer before the lunch that was always the same, rice and three vegetable curries, two red and one white, a meat curry (once or twice a week dry curry), a mallun and either papadam or a sambol. We had mulligatawny before, and afterwards fruit. In the evenings, after sherry or something stronger, there was a three course meal, and Lakshmi, who had begun to ration puddings, indulged me on this occasion. Even though there were shortages in the shops, with supply being difficult, traders made sure that Old Place was not deprived, and friends assisted as required.
It was a strange oasis then in the turmoil that possessed the country at the time. Sadly, my mind was half in Colombo, for personal reasons too, so I did not bask in it as I should have done. But that week too forms part of the memories of an idyllic house, even if the times kept changing, even during the decade when it was my second home.