Dag Hammerskjold, Dudley Senanayake, Gamini Corea, James Mason, Jayewardene, JR Jayewardene, Minister Hameed, Neville Kanakaratne, Nommie Weerasuriya, Odd Man Out, Oscar Wilde, Shirley Amerasinghe, Tilak Gooneratne, Vernon Mendis
I had often wondered why Lakshmi had never married. When I stayed with her as a child, she claimed that she was devoted to a boyfriend whose picture hung in her room. I realized this was James Mason after I had seen ‘Odd Man Out’, that fantastic early British film about Irish terrorism, and I had some sympathy with Lakshmi’s passion. Mason was still impressive in old age, with his beautifully resonant voice, but I realized there must be more to Lakshmi’s life, and by then indeed there was.
She was devoted to two confirmed bachelors, Neville Kanakaratne and Gamini Corea. Neither was what is termed the marrying kind, for totally different reasons, but they were both fond of her, and indulged her affection for their company. Gamini Corea, though an impressive personality, struck me as essentially self-centred, in particular in his treatment of women, many of whom adored him and many of whom I thought he exploited. But Neville was an extremely generous man, to anyone he came across, including us as children, and I kept urging her to marry him. This was despite my having realized long before that his tastes were quite otherwise. Staying in Brighton with a friend, I was told by his landlord that Neville, who had been a contemporary at Cambridge, had spent his whole time there chasing guardsmen.
This was a pursuit that by the eighties seemed archaically exotic, but it seemed to me an added recommendation, for Lakshmi had long been devoted to Oscar Wilde. When I was young and she was introducing me to the romantic literature she fancied, she had quoted in appreciation the conclusion (in the expurgated version) of ‘De Profundis’ – ‘Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed.’
Neville, who led a very full social life a century later, had no need to hide, but Lakshmi, it seemed to me, would have been the ideal shelter for him in his old age. After she died, we came across a cache of his letters to her, written on his way to New York where he had been on the Ceylon delegation to the UN, before being snapped up to work for Dag Hammerskjold. The latter, it was generally known, had been homosexual, and doubtless he and Neville had got on very well. Neville had been supposed to travel on the plane in which Hammerskjold crashed, when he was trying to settle the crisis that had arisen in the Congo. It was rumoured at the time that some Western powers thought him far too tolerant of the radicalism of African politicians, much preferring a lackey like Mobutu to the more popular Patrice Lumumba, and had therefore engineered his death. I don’t think this an entirely absurd suspicion, given how ruthless they were about murdering Lumumba.
Neville stayed on in the UN system until he was became Deputy High Commissioner in London under Dudley Senanayake’s 1965 government, and then ambassador to the United States under Mrs Bandaranaike. Jayewardene however got rid in 1977 of the best ambassadors of his predecessor, Neville, Shirley Amerasinghe from the UN, Vernon Mendis from London, and Tilak Gooneratne from Brussels. Only one of these was a career diplomat, a factor that needs to be taken into account when former members of the Foreign Service talk about the lowering of standards when political appointments are made. The simple fact was that Jayewardene, and his Foreign Minister Hameed, had no standards at all and, while caring nothing for the capable people in the Foreign Ministry, established a tradition of appointing any political lackey to diplomatic positions, whereas previously political appointments, at least to important embassies, had been of people of distinction.
Neville was not lacking for employment after Jayewardene removed him, and went on to work for the UN on Namibian independence. I do not know the details, but the fact that Namibia is one of the few success stories of independent Africa is I am sure in part due to his capacity. When this work finished, he was finally used again by Jayewardene, as ambassador to the Soviet Union. This made him an object of suspicion to Premadasa, but my father, in turning down the position of Ambassador to India, suggested Neville, who did an excellent job.
Lakshmi, it seemed, had been quite keen on Neville, and my father had even approached him on the subject, but had been gently rebuffed. I should note that Neville was not entirely against marriage, for he had indicated an interest in one of the other young ladies who were a feature of Lakmahal at the time, but in that case his caste had worked against him. It is possible however that this too was camouflage, as were the details in the letters he sent Lakshmi of beautiful young ladies, on board ship and in New York, whom he found irresistible. I wondered, seeing these elaborate missives, forty years after they had been written, whether he had simply transposed the sexes, as Proust did in creating Albertine and her band of young girls, and whether the starlets into whose ears Neville spoke of whispering sweet nothings were in fact young men.
That my father had thought it possible to approach Neville on Lakshmi’s behalf, in spite of his caste, was a distinct advance. This only registered later, when I was told, after Lakshmi had died, that one of her distant cousins had wanted desperately to marry her, when she was in her early twenties, but his mother was not of the right caste, and the proposal had been rejected. Earlier I had thought that Lakshmi was always choosy, except in the cases of Gamini and Neville, but now I learnt that she had been positive, and it was her mother who had been absolutely adamant. Obviously it was not her father, since after Dottie died, he had seemed willing to promote Neville.
But it is possible too that for Leo, who had been in his early fifties when Dottie died, it might have seemed sensible for Lakshmi to get married, instead of spending the rest of her life looking after him. This was a charge that it seems Dottie enjoined on her daughter when she was dying, and Lakshmi certainly did her best by her standards. Unfortunately this involved depriving Leo of many of his pleasures, to do with food and drink in later life as his health became suspect, but also from early on the simple romance which he enjoyed.
He had a particular affection for nurses, and used indeed even late in life have assignations, of a largely innocent sort, such as taking the air together on Galle Face Green. I am told that he had been trying to arrange something of the sort on the day he died, at Lakmahal, having just come back from hospital. He had seemed to be recovering well, and had persuaded Lakshmi to go on an excursion with my parents, an indulgence she felt guilty about afterwards, since she was not there when he died. However I believe Leo had been anxious that she go, and my father had aided and abetted him, for he called on the way back to make sure that Leo would be at home when his daughter got back. That was how they found out that Leo had died, having suddenly felt pain on getting up, and then passing away peacefully, with only his sister beside him.
The last few years had been hard on both Leo and Lakshmi. Though they were devoted to each other’s interests, they were very different personalities, and often could not appreciate what the other might want. I was reminded of them later, when I came across Trollope’s vivid characterization of Lady Laura, who loved Phineas Finn, who however decided that he could not possibly marry her, despite an early attraction. Trollope suggests he was quite right, in noting that Lady Laura was devoted to him but, in thinking of what she could do for him, it never occurred to her to wonder what he might want.
So both Leo and Lakshmi went through a decade and a half in which they rubbed against each other; and Lakshmi had a further quarter century of spinsterhood, living out this legacy, at Old Place by herself for much of it.
I used to wonder if Dottie understood what the consequences were likely to be of her preventing Lakshmi from marrying; and whether indeed she cared. Of course I never met her, and I may be judging her unfairly, but the image that stayed with me was of a selfish woman, not wanting to be alone with Leo in that large, rambling house in a provincial backwater, if Lakshmi married; and, worse, not wanting, were she to die early (she was slightly older than Leo), Leo to be on his own and enjoy himself. So perhaps the charge she gave to Lakshmi, that she should look after her father, was not entirely in his interests. That was deliberate, and that it was not in Lakshmi’s interests either was not something Dottie would have worried about.
My interpretation was confirmed, though in a modified fashion, when I found amongst Lakshmi’s possessions after her death another cache of letters, between Dottie and Nommie Weerasuriya, the famous lawyer. I passed them on to my mother, and have not been able to trace them since. I suspect she would have destroyed them, not only because she never kept letters herself, but because she would have thought them indiscreet.
I cannot quite remember whether they were only Nommie’s letters to Dottie, or included also hers to him. I think the latter, but that seems almost impossible, since he died long after she did. On the other hand, it was I believe a Victorian tradition to return such letters to the sender, when she settled into another relationship, and these certainly were letters written when both were young. They suggested passion on her part, and only affection on his, which she recognized.
Such secret intensity moves me. It does not excuse what Dottie did, if indeed she married a man she did not love, and then made his life a misery, and ensured that her daughter afterwards did the same. But perhaps she deserves something of our sympathy, if she was made to marry someone she did not love, while hoping desperately that her feelings for Nommie would finally win him over. That she then prevented both Leo and Lakshmi from fulfilling their own potential is perhaps understandable.
Of course I exaggerate. I don’t suppose Leo ever regretted his own marriage. One must also register the great joys he also had in life, in his friends and his social life, in his work and in games, as a sportsman and then as a spectator. His was a good life, and by and large he was happier in his daughter than many people are. She too did well in the great scheme of things. But she could have done better, and I wish sometimes that she had been allowed to marry someone she wanted to, who had been greatly in love with her when she was young.