Lakshmi’s move to Colombo had been planned in theory many years ago, soon after both Leo and Ida died, but much had to be concluded before it could be accomplished. First, Lakshmi had to sell her lands in Kurunagala, which she wanted to finish before she moved, not only to have enough money to buy and build, but also because she felt that, once she moved, rapacious politicians would acquire her property in Kurunagala. Second, Old Place and the land around it had to be disposed of, which was complicated by the fact that Lakshmi owned only a quarter of the property. The rest belonged to my grandmother, since the older Goonewardene sisters had both left their own quarter shares to their younger sister. I always thought this was unfair, since it was Leo who had looked after the house and the property for so long, but no one else shared my view. I suppose this was understandable since Lakshmi was not married, and had no heirs except her aunt’s family, but that I thought was a contingency that should not have affected the principles involved.
This factor was further complicated by the fact that Bishop Lakshman had decided that he wanted to retire in Kurunagala, and live in the Annexe that had been built for his wicked Uncle Edward. The Annexe had been used on occasion over the years, last of all I think when I took Nigel Hatch and Qadri Ismail for a couple of days in 1982, shortly after I had been dismissed from S. Thomas’. Lakshmi had been a marvelous host, and sometimes I think I should have pushed her more in this respect, insisting on taking friends there to stay, because it would have enlivened her. But I am not especially gregarious myself, and valued Kurunagala also for peace and quiet, and the opportunity passed.
Though such visitations were rare, the Annexe had been in daily use in the years before Leo died, because he would go there every morning to use the toilet. After breakfast, still in his sarong, the papers tucked under his arm, he would stride out, returning a quarter of an hour later, his own system and the Annexe toilet duly flushed. When Lakshmi was on her own, it remained closed most of the time, but she would make sure it was cleaned regularly.
Lakshman’s desire to make that his retirement home was declared while he and Lakshmi were not on good terms, so negotiations had to be delicate. Lakshmi continued close to my grandmother, who did not allow her devotion to Lakshman to affect her relationship with the niece for whom she felt some responsibility. But negotiations were slow, and I think only reached a satisfactory conclusion after Lakshman fell ill and Lakshmi went to see him. Soon after the land was given to Lakshman however, he died, leaving it to the Church, which I think caused Lakshmi some irritation, since she had parted with it at a concessionary price, but did not see why the Anglican Church should benefit from her sense of kinship. The Church, it should be noted, after years of trying to build a memorial there, decided that the expenses would be too great, and instead sold the land. The proceeds were used to build a Lakshman Wickremesinghe Centre on the main Cathedral premises, and that I believe still functions effectively.
Thirdly, Lakshmi had to find a suitable block of land in Colombo. This was not easy, since she had very particular ideas, rendered less easy because, while never quite admitting to it, she wanted land near Lakmahal so that she could be near her closest relations. Prices kept rising while she sorted out her affairs in Kurunagala, but finally she found something that suited her perfectly, a small block in Bagatelle Road, about ten minutes walk from Lakmahal. There was some hard bargaining with the owner, a rich old man called Watson Pieris, but Lakshmi held her own, and finally took over the land.
Then she had to build the house, which again was not easy, given her specifications. She wanted it done by Geoffrey Bawa but he, sensing an equally stubborn spirit, managed to dodge. With unaccustomed kindness he drafted one of his former assistants to help, and actually modified what was initially a clumsy design, to produce something quite attractive.
While all this was being played out I found, to my surprise, that the idea of Old Place being lost no longer struck me as unbearable. I always enjoyed my stays there but, as the years passed, I found that Lakshmi and I had less and less to talk about. One problem was that I was extremely critical of the government, whereas she made no bones about the fact that she supported the UNP, whether right or wrong. Whereas earlier we had been able to talk about books, as her eyesight deteriorated she read less, and in any case had never been concerned about the social and political aspects of literature. These were the most interesting for me, and I did not I think make enough of an effort to relate to her less analytical approach.
When I was at school I had loved her records, and she had introduced me to marvelous light classics, Strauss waltzes, Chopin’s nocturnes, and a small record of four serenades, including Boccherini’s that had been the theme of the great Alec Guinness film ‘The Ladykillers’. But, while on the one hand I was now more interested in opera and heavier stuff, on the other Lakshmi was not happy to let me use her old record player, and was too busy except for minute portions of the day to put it on herself. So something else that might have kept us in communication faded away, and in time I found it difficult to talk to her in any depth.
Though I never lost my fascination with the Old Place, I had also by the mid-eighties found another place to stay when I wanted to get out of Colombo. Lakshmi was not jealous, but I sensed that she was slightly hurt, as Leo had been two decades previously, when I had taken to spending parts of my holidays, not only with him at Kurunagala, but also with W J Fernando at the Government Agent’s Lodge in Kandy. Given Lakshmi’s sense of family, it was probably worse that the new abode I had found was Aluwihare, the Walauwe that belonged to Ena de Silva, daughter of Leo’s cousin Lucille Moonemalle.
The last time I visited the Old Place while Lakshmi was there was in fact with Ena, though I was not staying at Aluwihare. We were both at the house in Rambukkana of my sister’s friend Priyani Tennekoon, along with my sister and the husband she had recently married, and others of her gang. Lakshmi entertained us in something of the old style, and also got across some Moonemalle relations I had not met before, the daughters of Ivor, the son of Donovan, Lucille’s brother. The girls, one of whom married Harry Goonetilleke’s son Roshan, who later commanded the Air Force as his father had done, were therefore Ena’s nieces, just as I was Lakshmi’s nephew. Ena and the Moonemalle girls however hardly knew each other, which brought home to me how lucky we had been in having such close ties with Leo and Lakshmi and the world of Old Place into which we had such easy access.
Lakshmi was at her best that day. I suppose it was not a role she would have wanted to sustain all the time, but I regret sometimes that she never had the chance to be mistress properly of a house like the Old Place.