My sister also joined us in Alu for the major expedition that was planned, principally to the Sinharaja, for which I had got a permit, but also wherever our fancies led. Anila was just back after seven years away, first at Oxford where she had joined me for a one year MSc, then at Cornell for a PhD, and finally at Harvard where she had done post-doctoral work and shared a flat with Ena’s daughter Kusum. The two of them were fast friends, and Anila often had to try to explain the mother and daughter to each other, when those two strong personalities clashed. This was not uncommon in early days, though it has also been illuminating to see the manner in which, as both have grown older, they have been much more appreciative of the very different strengths of the other.
Once again then we set of in a large caravan, Sena driving, Ena in front, Nick and Anila and me behind, Perumal and two young ladies from the Heritage Centre at the back of the vehicle. Ena called them needle and thread, for they were inseparable, though in fact they were amongst the few of the inner group to leave, both getting married over the next year or so and going far away. In addition we had a different postilion, a Sinhala boy called Bandula who was extremely handsome but much, much slower than Mani. The latter, it seemed, had gone off to a colonization scheme in the Wanni and, though I would ask after him over the years, nothing more was ever heard of him.
The story came back to me vividly when, over a quarter of a century later, I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, with a brief to coordinate assistance to those who had been displaced during the struggle against the Tigers. To my surprise, I found that many of those in the Welfare Centres turned out to speak Sinhala, and this was because there were amongst them a high proportion of what we had known as Indian Tamils, those who had been initially brought over by the British to work on the tea plantations.
Though it was certainly true that many had gone to the Wanni to seek refuge after the attacks on them that seemed to have government support in the eighties, I realized too that several had gone earlier, most notably in a resettlement project that a Norwegian aid agency had supported. Thus, though one could understand the worries of Tamils about what they described as demographic change in the East because of state sponsored colonization, one also had to realize that there had been much sponsored colonization in the Wanni too, involving people who had no essential connection with those areas, unless one assumed that a common language was a qualifying factor. Mani, then, who inspired a character in Acts of Faith, the novel I was to write over the next year about the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983, was also an inspiration for a more informed analysis of demographic change in Sri Lanka.
We set off early as before, and got to the Sinharaja by morning, and were able to take the vehicle in. Nick was quite bemused by flourishing tropical vegetation, and Ena has constantly reminded me of how he fought off attacks from orchids as they brushed in through the open windows. The paths were not however made for driving, so soon enough we had to get down and walk. Unfortunately the guide service was not especially professional at the time, and we soon abandoned the idea therefore of staying on at the Sinharaja for a couple of days, it also being apparent that the accommodation available was not especially comfortable.
It was only about fifteen years later that Ena and I finally stayed together at the Sinharaja. I don’t think she had been there to stay with anyone else, but she had heard of a local called Martin who let out rooms, and was a good guide for birds, so one New Year season we went there. Martin did indeed let out rooms, but he had also become an icon to tourists, and played up to the role in a manner Ena found objectionable, particularly when he tried to sell as indigenous art what she thought were the worst excesses of formulaic painting as taught in our schools. We stayed one night, and then fled, and I must confess I have no fond memories of the Sinharaja as a place to stay, though certainly my first two visits there with Ena were memorable for quite other reasons.
On that second visit we spent the night at the Rakwana Resthouse, another old world building looking out on hills and a waterfall, Ena and her entourage in one room and Nick and Anila and I in another. Early the next day we set out eastward, turning after Moneragala onto the road to Lahugala, which in the next few years became risky, so that I next travelled on it over a decade and a half later, in a convoy arranged for the Australian ambassador. In 1983 though, all seemed peaceful, and we went into the sanctuary, though we did not see any elephants, and Padma and Niranjala, needle and thread, cooked lunch for us on the banks of the Hada Oya.
We ended up at Panama, which Anila pronounced as in the Canal, an aberration she is still reminded of. We found a small but serviceable hotel, though food was not available, irritatingly because Ena had suggested we pick something up earlier and we had insisted on waiting for something better. It was a lesson we took to heart, and since then on our many adventures we have always picked something up if available when mealtimes approached, often unnecessarily – but excess as far as food goes has never worried Ena and, as she has explained, the opposite is so much more worrying.
That night on the East Coast was bliss, as was sunrise the next morning, and we wended our way up slowly but happily the next day back to Alu. Anila however restrained us from taking the road up through Corbett’s Gap after we had climbed Mahiyangana, so that was an adventure which had to wait for another day. When we left, we thought we would be back to see Ena again for another loaf before Nick left, but this was just a few days before July 23rd.
He and I were in Bentota when all hell broke loose, and after we staggered back to Colombo on the 28th, and found the house full, Nick was nervous and wanted to leave as soon as possible. So we set off to Negombo, on the 29th which turned out the worst day of all, as far as Colombo was concerned, and stayed in relative peace and quiet till Nick got a flight. It was only after I got back to Colombo that I heard about Ena’s adventures.
She had been in Yala when the riots broke out, and had thought it best to get back home, though it turned out that she then travelled through the hills in the days when those were worst affected. Sena however had managed by pure aggression to stop Perumal being harmed or even questioned. Bandula, it seems, had got lost, having vanished when they stopped for petrol, but they did not have to worry about him as would have been the case with Mani, so they moved on, and he duly turned up again at Alu a few days later.
Ena was horrified to find that Alu too had been affected by the riots, though there as elsewhere it was clear that it was outsiders who had attacked the Tamils, not their neighbours. When I wrote about these events in the novel, I stressed the horror felt by the Ena character (called Phyllis, which was her sister’s name, not at all a clever move on my part) about what had happened to her village. I think Ena appreciated the sentiments, though she was not well pleased at my suggestion that the tone she used when describing Alu was portentous.