Alfreda de Silva, Aluwihare, Anne Ranasinghe, Anuradhapura, Ena de Silva, Esmond Wickremesinghe, Gal Vihare, Jean Arasanayagam, Lyn Illangakoon, Polonnaruwa, Raymond Allchin, Richard de Zoysa, S. Thomas’, The New Lankan Review
Nick arrived in early July, and we had a fantastic couple of weeks, beginning with the launch on the evening he landed of The New Lankan Review. This was a journal I had decided to start that year, when Richard de Zoysa and I found ourselves out of jobs after being sacked from S. Thomas’. We taught in a little house in 8th Lane that my father was looking after for some friends, and in between we wrote avidly. I think the journal, which went on for eight years, the last issue being in memory of Richard who was murdered in 1990, proved a vital influence in making Sri Lankan writing in English acceptable, whereas previously the social and academic elite had looked down on it.
The first Review was also noted however for an account of my adventures at S. Thomas’, which did not get me any credit at home, since most of my relations thought I had been far too critical of the many characters who I felt had behaved badly in the episode. One exception was my uncle Esmond, who was a great gossip and told me that I had been extremely skilful to steer just on the right side of libel, in drawing attention to the various unsavoury motives of the elite of Colombo. Ena, needless to say, also found the account instructive, not least because she had been overwhelmed by the criticisms of her sister and others who had heard only the Illangakoon side of the story.
But Ena, unlike almost anyone else, was as interested in the creative writing as in the story of S. Thomas’. She was able to appreciate the work of older polished writers such as Alfreda de Silva and Anne Ranasinghe but, like me, she relished most the sheer energy of Jean Arasanayagam. Her poetry had had the greatest impact at the launch at the British Council on Nick’s first evening in Colombo, though sadly none of us there quite appreciated its prophetic overtones, with its presentation of a Tamil identity that was struggling to assert itself. This was all the more remarkable in that Jean herself was Burgher, but recent experiences she had undergone, the attacks of 1981 that had made her familiar with refugee centres when Colombo was still secure from such horrors, had sharpened her perceptions as well as her poetic talent.
Over the years Ena and I would discuss avidly the writings I published, more frequently later through the English Writers Cooperative which I established through the British Council in 1988, though its management was entirely in the hands of Sri Lankan writers. Anne Ranasinghe took over the principal role after I left the Council, and it is a tribute to her commitment and her capacity that she kept it going even without the Council subventions and support that we had earlier enjoyed. Ena had a great regard for Anne for, though as everyone knew she could be very difficult, her essential decency always came through, and Ena was sensitive enough never to forget what she must have gone through, as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who was the only one in her family to survive.
Nick and I went up almost immediately to Aluwihare, for me to present Ena with her copy of the Review, talk about which must have bored Nick silly over the next few days. Our first excursion was to Polonnaruwa, and I still remember our pre-dawn start which allowed us to have breakfast on the banks of the Parakrama Samudraya before exploring the sites. We had a long day thereafter, though with a break of course for lunch, lying under massive shady trees while the waters lapped at our side. Ena paced herself sensibly, getting down only at places she particularly relished, avoiding the sun as much as possible.
I was reminded of that first visit nearly a decade later, when I took her to see Polonnaruwa lit up at night, through a project I administered for the British Council. It had been designed to develop the place as a site for night visits, so as to encourage tourists to stay in the area, whereas they were used to travelling from the bigger hotels some distance away on day trips. Sadly the Cultural Triangle administration was not able to focus on this aspect, a problem I found endemic in Sri Lanka, since planning so as to involve a number of different agencies and aspects was almost impossible. I suspect this arises mainly from our tendency to carve out individual fiefdoms, but the failure to develop a culture of cooperation, based on wider understanding of potential benefits, is also a major flaw in our training systems.
The Cultural Triangle made up for this deficiency however by unstinted graciousness in agreeing to command performances as it were for anyone we suggested. I did not quite think it correct to ask for one for my aunt, but fortunately the Swiss Ambassador expressed an interest, and I was able to take Ena along when a visit for him was arranged. He was the individual, a Count in his own right (though I knew him also as a cousin of an eccentric Eurocentric American who had been with me at Oxford), who said that modern Sri Lankan art was for him very simple, a matter of Geoffrey Bawa and Ena de Silva. We also took along the mother of Scott Richards, who had done a lot of drama work for the British Council, and who also became a firm friend of Ena’s along with his boyfriend, who for years to follow would send Ena thoughtful gifts. Scott and I had a delightful time watching Ena and his mother, a formidable old lady, working out how to cope with each other.
That night was magical. The Consultant we had hired had a most fantastic eye, for stone as well as for greenery, and he lit his subjects up in different ways, bright focus on gateways and statues in some temples, highlighting of columns and carvings in the central area of image houses, spotlights from amidst greenery on the looming palace. Ena walked more than she had done for years amongst the ruins, and was also deeply appreciative of the fact that the Gal Vihare, one of the most impressive sights anywhere in the world, had not been obtrusively highlighted.
The Project had also included work at Anuradhapura, and I remember dropping in with Ena one morning on Raymond Allchin, an old and distinguished and self-opinionated British archaeologist who was working on site there. Not entirely absurdly, he felt that the Triangle was not spending enough time and money on careful analysis based on field work, but his patronizing approach had to yield to Ena’s long-standing familiarity with the site. I only realized then, as she talked of the times she had spent there when her father was Government Agent, of the comprehensive role such officials played in the days before increasing specialization led to restrictive compartmentalization. Obviously we cannot go back to the days of gifted amateurs, but it is a pity that the wide-ranging interests and commitment of officials of an earlier era, based on a strong sense of responsibility, cannot be revived.