Leo died in August 1971, and Lakshmi stayed on by herself at the Old Place for 17 years more. Of course she could not move immediately, for Ida survived till the January of 1972, and obviously Lakshmi could not have left Kurunagala while her old aunt stayed on, with her Burgher companion and, by then, I think only one old woman to cook and clean. And perhaps, having survived to all intents and purposes by herself, in the rest of the large house, and having begun to manage the estates that remained to her, she decided then that she could survive on her own at the Old Place, at least until she had set up an establishment of her own in Colombo.
Though her aunt, my grandmother, would have been quite happy to have her at Lakmahal, Lakshmi was too fiercely independent to have become part of someone else’s household. Sometimes I wonder indeed whether, doing her own thing at the Old Place for so long, she would not have stayed on even longer, were it not for the rising tide of JVP violence, following the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987, and the obviously increasing danger to a woman by herself in a large house.
Her lifestyle had changed considerably. I believe for the first few years she still had some of the servants who had been at the Old Place when Leo died, but Lakshmi was never very good with servants. There was high drama in the case of James, the man of all work from one of the estates, who had never lived in, but who came every day to minister to the needs of the household, and whom we had thought indispensable. She caught him stealing paddy from the store, and dealt with him with a firmness that made reconciliation impossible.
In fact the consequences of her rage extended beyond James, for her cousin the Bishop thought she had been too harsh, and tried to bring them together again, on the grounds that James had served Leo and then Lakshmi faithfully for more than a decade, and should not be irrevocably dismissed. This made Lakshmi feel that he was taking the side of her errant employee, and for several years a cold war raged between them too. It was only settled when Lakshman had his first heart attack, and she went to his bedside and a tearful reconciliation was effected. My mother, who had a high regard for her younger brother, thought that Lakshmi was being silly to quarrel with someone who was in a sense her protector in Kurunagala, but I think she was wrong. Lakshmi survived just as well after Lakshman died, in 1983, and though she could never have commanded the affection he did, I have no doubt that, in her own way, she was respected as highly, if for very different reasons, as he was.
She usually had an old woman who stayed in with her, but these never lasted long for she could be excessively hard on them. Phyllis Ratwatte sent her the ayah who had looked after her children, when the last of these grew up but, despite her family loyalties, she moved on quite soon. Longest lasting was an amiable half-wit, who would obligingly trot behind Lakshmi in her expeditions to Colombo, both of them laden with bags. Lakshmi, though hard, was fair, and carried her share of any burden.
She had kept her father’s Humber Hawk, but she hardly used it, and had got used to buses, usually coming to Colombo every fortnight as her father had done. On the return journey she was laden with frozen meats from Colombo, at first, but as the years passed her diet became increasingly limited. Her digestion was weak, perhaps because she had taken to eating sparingly when she was on her own, and for about a decade before she died the only meat she could tolerate was chicken. Since her genes, Moonemalle or Goonewardene ones, demanded meat, this meant that she ate several chickens in her last years. For some reason she thought that only the leg suited her digestion, so I would tell her that she was responsible for the lives of at least 700 chickens a year, at the rate of two legs twice a day.
She put up with such inane teasing, indeed seemed to enjoy it, for we had slipped back, when I finally returned from University at the end of 1979, into the special relationship I had enjoyed with her and Leo during my childhood. In 1975, when I was back on holiday, I made it a point to spend some time with her at the Old Place, on my own, in addition to taking a couple of friends there. In 1978, while writing up my thesis, I also stayed, noting that things had declined considerably in the interim. I was surprised then to find Lakshmi still in residence in 1980, and relieved, since I went there regularly over the next few years, to read and write in undisturbed solitude. Lakshmi, who only let me come when she had staff, even though she did most of the work herself, still produced delicious if simple meals, sometimes specialties she had brought up from Colombo, even though she would not eat these herself.
Usually, though not when I was there, she had a man in to stay the night, one of the sons of the old barber whom Leo had patronized, who used to come in to cut his almost non-existent hair during the sixties. Singaram was an immigrant from India, who had done well as a barber, and maintained two wives. He had a son and a daughter by each, and both families it seemed got on very well. It was the two sons who took it in turn to stand guard over Lakshmi, the elder dark and slim and smart, the other rotund and with some learning, so that he would sometimes ask me about politics and the world at large.
Both Jagath and Dilip committed suicide, though it was after Lakshmi had moved to Colombo. Lakshmi never explained why, and I do not know if she understood from what strange compulsions they suffered, though she did occasionally tell us about depressions and financial problems. Both Leo and Singaram however had been joyous characters, as far as I knew. I suppose I will also not know what made their children so different, though in Lakshmi’s case I have often tried to understand.