Ossie died shortly after Sir Richard. Ena was devastated, and needed to get away. Friends, notably Tilak Gooneratne she would later say, who had also married into a Civil Service family, arranged for a Commonwealth Consultancy and she worked for a year and a half in the British Virgin Islands. Geoffrey Bawa, the architect who had developed a remarkable collaboration with her after he had designed a house for her in Colombo, had rented that house as an office for the many projects he undertook for the new government of J R Jayewardene, most memorably the new Parliament but also Ruhuna University.
When Ena came back, she retired to Aluwihare. She had set up there a Batik workshop, one amongst many that fed the flourishing business of Ena de Silva fabrics. When she went away to the Virgin Islands, she had handed the firm over to a nephew of her husband, but he had run it into the ground. She was unable to resurrect it, caught as it was in the throes of a messy divorce between her nephew and his wife, but she decided to do what she could for the Aluwihare Centre, which had provided gainful employment over the years to the villagers, including several relations.
Over the next thirty years the Aluwihare Heritage Centre, as it came to be known, developed not only fabrics, with traditional embroidery added onto its trademark batiks, but also a carpentry workshop and a brass foundry. These were started when Ena decided that the young men of the village also needed work, else they would get into mischief. The claim was prophetic, for the young men of Aluwihare escaped the fate of many others in the country, when the JVP insurrection of the late eighties took its toll.
The workshops were followed by a Restaurant, or rather two, when Ena decided she should do something for the middle aged women of the village too. She had begun by supplying meals on order in a custom built kitchen on her own premises, designed with fantastic views by Anjalendran, who was I think Bawa’s best apprentice. Then, deciding she had to expand into the village too, she set up a small guest house in a property by the road that belonged to the family of her cousin Alick, who had succeeded Bernard as the UNP candidate for the area. He had been lucky for, when Bernard died suddenly, his son had been too young to succeed. The UNP, anxious for any Aluwihare, had found Alick, the youngest son of Bernard’s step-brother Willie, the most suitable of those willing, though he had nothing like the educational or intellectual qualifications of Bernard or Sir Richard. But he proved an active constituency MP, and in turn established his own dynasty.
Ena herself steered clear of politics. Though the family was strongly committed to the UNP, and indeed Chari, the oldest son of her sister Phyllis, had been active in the 1977 election campaign and occupied increasingly important administrative roles in successive UNP governments, she was strongly critical of J R Jayewardene and his behavior. I suspect one reason we got on so well was my forthright opposition to Jayewardene when this was not at all popular in Colombo circles. In fact she proved even more deeply critical, suggesting when I finally decided to vote for the UNP, in the General election of 2001, in the belief that its leadership had reformed and would do better, that she was not quite so optimistic.
Though she claimed to know nothing of politics, she was an extraordinarily sharp observer of political developments, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. She had a few strong prejudices, but these often tallied with my own. The few things we differed on included both President Premadasa and, ironically given Premadasa’s own dislike of India, the role of India in Sri Lankan politics. I was myself a late convert to Premadasa, having come to appreciate his obvious devotion to rural development, as well as his very healthy approach to the rights and the welfare of the minorities. But Ena thought he had ridden roughshod over too many and, though she granted he was a better leader than either his predecessor or his successor, that did not make him acceptable.
Ena’s attitude to D B Wijetunge I think summed up her very practical if idiosyncratic view of politics. She claimed that she was never so frightened for the country as when he was the President, because he was so clearly an idiot. That very healthy and practical approach was in marked contrast to the absurd panegyrics about the man by the old elite, which had resented Premadasa’s ascendancy, and it confirmed my view that an ounce of Ena’s prejudices was worth a ton of anyone else’s analysis.
About India she was less rational. Though she was quite critical about what she saw as the extreme Sinhala Buddhist prejudices of her husband, she had certainly absorbed something of his views in her hostility to the Indian Tamil presence in the hills, which she claimed had been at the cost of the Sinhala peasantry. This was certainly correct, and we agreed in noting the responsibility of the British in having so altered the demography of the country, but she thought I was too indulgent in claiming that much more had to be done for them once they had been granted citizenship, and also that the attempt to deprive them of citizenship in the forties had been unjust.
She was also convinced that the efforts of Tamil politicians to obtain greater autonomy were excessive, and we had to agree to disagree about devolution. But her essential fairness never left her, and she quite understood the enormity of what the Jayewardene government had done in 1981 and 1983, and how this made Tamil demands for greater control of the areas in which they lived more understandable. But she continued to believe that India had stirred the pot out of pure self interest, and that Indian efforts to broker peace were not to be trusted.
Such criticism trumped even her awareness that the Jayewardene government had engaged in unnecessary confrontation with India in its effort to align itself with the West in the Cold War. For, interestingly given her elite upbringing during the colonial period, Ena had an even stronger distrust of the West, and its efforts to control other countries. She had no illusions whatsoever about its self-serving agenda, and this made her a strong ally in recent years when, once again, the urban elite supported Western efforts to derail our struggle against terrorism. I was glad then that I was able to convince her that India had played a positive role in this regard, though I believe she continued to wonder what benefits India expected to derive from its support.