, , , , , , , ,

I cannot recall if I visited Alu again that year. Since then I have kept diaries, albeit perfunctorily, of my daily life, but 1983 was the last year in which I was still careless about memories. I know that in August I went to England for nearly two months, and soon after I came back home my uncle Lakshman died, so we had to spend some time at Kurunagala sorting out his belongings in the Bishop’s House he had lived in for twenty years. We stayed at the Old Place, a shell now in comparison with its former grandeur, even unto the sixties when my grandmother’s brother Leo had been a leading citizen of the town. His daughter Lakshmi was to stagger on alone there from 1971, and for another four years after her cousin Lakshman died, with myself being her main if not her only visitor for brief periods in those last few years. Lakshman’s death was the last occasion on which the family, including my grandmother who had been born there in 1900, visited the place together.

Ena had not been especially close to my mother and her siblings, for as she said to me later, her sister Phyllis saw herself as my mother’s special friend and would have resented any intrusion. Of Esmond she was wary, given both his reputation as a philanderer, and his management of newspapers which she found intrusive. Tissa the second brother however she said she had found a good companion, and she was sorry he had died young, for he too had had a rebellious streak. Lakshman, who was much younger, she had only got to know when she retired to Alu, and he dropped in on her whenever his Episcopal duties took him to Matale. Her girls she said still commented on his good looks, remembering the vestments they had prepared for him way back in 1962 when he had decided that Ena’s batik was the best way of establishing his indigenous identity as an Anglican Bishop in Sri Lanka.

1983 was the last time I went to England with some uncertainty as to whether I might still want to settle down there. When I came back from Oxford I had kept a right of residence in Britain, thinking that if things became unbearable I could always go back. Between my previous visit, in 1981, and 1983, things had indeed become unbearable, for I had been sacked from S. Thomas, the political processes in the country had been closed up by the Referendum (and its concomitant thuggery) that postponed elections for six years, there had been efforts to intimidate the Supreme Court with the state providing transport for the hooligans who surrounded their houses, and we had just had massive attacks on Tamils, with Tamil prisoners being murdered in cold blood in prison, not once but twice.

Not entirely paradoxically, all this made it clear to me that I would stay. To leave at this stage would have been copping out, and though I did not think I could do anything to change things, one had to make an effort. Besides, it was clear to me that this was my world, and my English friends, though obviously they would continue for ever and a day to furnish an intimacy I would only rarely find at home, could not really understand what I felt. In that sense Nick being in Sri Lanka during the riots, and panicking, had made me realize how much separated us. It was great to go and stay with him in Brighton a few weeks later, but that was very much his world, and mine was entirely different. In those three momentous years, my identity had been stabilized, and it was no longer possible for me to change the world that was its foundation.

A day in Cambridge with Gajan Pathmanathan (who had been with me at Univ) and his wife Dhammy (who had lost relations on Black Friday, when they had gone out thinking things safe after sheltering with relations for the previous few days), when they explained why they would probably not be coming back, made it clear to me where my commitments and my interests lay. These people, though so different in their general view of the world, were my countrymen, and it was their concerns, even while I could understand why they were leaving the country, to which I was bound.

But one would need relief of course from such intensity, and that was why it was so important that I had discovered Ena that year. Over the next few years, she was a refuge to which I could turn, to discuss books and writers in a manner and a style of which few other Sri Lankans were capable. Her range was immense for as she put it, with characteristic modesty, Regi Siriwardena had introduced her to modern writing, while her family and her Ladies College education had imbued her with knowledge of the classics in the traditional English view – though I should add that being able to share awareness of all that too at a heightened level was not common with most others.

Ena then provided me with intellectual companionship that kept me going, in a symbiosis that I otherwise enjoyed only with Richard de Zoysa. And like him, she was someone with whom one could discuss politics with total clarity and a basic foundation of principle that could not be taken in by humbug. Both of course had their own prejudices, as I did myself, but I think all three of us could recognize when those prejudices came into play, and also respect each other’s viewpoints. At the same time both had a strong sense of humour, and an awareness of individual idiosyncrasies, that made conversation with them exciting and entertaining, as well as hugely informative.

They also both had the great advantage of having been connected to important players in the political process. Their paths intersected as it were in the person of Sidney de Zoysa, Richard’s uncle, who had been Osmond de Silva’s senior DIG, and ultimately one of the chief plotters against him. Disappointed then when Ossie was got rid of, but replaced by a Civil Servant, he had taken to politics in an even more active fashion, culminating in his being probably the main inspiration behind the abortive coup of 1962.

Before then he had been the principal adviser to Wijayananda Dahanayake, who had succeeded as Prime Minister when Bandaranaike was assassinated, and had then fought with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had been the leading element in Bandaranaike’s coalition. He had then contested the March 1960 election through another party he had set up of which the other principal member was Sidney. That party was crushed but, though Mrs Bandaranaike finally came to power in the July 1960 election, Sidney continued a powerful influence, and I remember Tarzie Vittachi telling me that the main reason he had left Sri Lanka was that his children had been threatened by Sidney. Similarly, when F C de Saram told me, when I upbraided him about the coup, that he had given strict orders that no one was to be harmed, and I expressed disbelief that the orders would have been obeyed, he quickly noted that he had instructed that a special watch be kept on Sidney.

Sidney would of course have made mincemeat of all of them had the coup succeeded. When I met him in the eighties however, with Richard, he was a mild old man, and it seemed unbelievable that he had exercised such negative influence at a crucial period in our history. Ena made no bones about what he had represented, and Richard did not contest this. But both were also very clear about the positive features of the man, and they helped me understand the perverse nature of politics that can lead so many people astray in pursuit of what they see as ideals.