Andrew Kumarage, Anil Gamini, British Council, Ena de Silva, Loku Puttuwa, Maduru Oya, Podi Puttuwa, Raji Ratwatte, Sam Bickersteth, Shanthi Wilson, Suren Ratwatte, Uda Walawe, Wasgomuwa, Wilpattu, Yala
In 1984 began a comprehensive programme of travels with Ena. The highlights of these were trips to Yala, and also to other parks, Wasgomuwa and Uda Walawe and Wilpattu, and also to Maduru Oya where her contacts allowed us to stay with the Park Warden.
The first trip was in February, shortly after I had joined the British Council. Almost immediately after I started work I developed a bad back problem, which kept me in bed for a few days. I was not too keen then to go on the trip that had been arranged, but my mother persuaded me, realizing I think that, though I was not very fond of family gatherings, this was an expedition I would enjoy.
In addition to Anila and her friend Shanthi Wilson, whom I had known vaguely when they were at school together, and met subsequently in England when she was doing a postgraduate at Cambridge while Anila was in Oxford, the party included Ena’s nephews Raji and Suren Ratwatte, whom I had known only as energetic little boys when we were growing up. Raji was six years younger than me, twelve years younger than Chari his older brother, prompting the quip that Ena and Phyllis clearly belonged to the race of lions – Ena’s son Anil Gamini, who had been at Oxford as a postgraduate during my first year, was twelve years older than her second child Anula Kusum.
We also took along Sam Bickersteth, who had come out to work with my uncle Lakshman just before he died. He, along with another English boy called Richard, had decided to stay on and work with the new Bishop, the saintly Andrew Kumarage. Sam I felt a special responsibility for since – apart from the fact that he was much more fun than Richard, who was a worthy but earnest youth, who became in time a priest himself – he was a relation of my great friends at Oxford, the Wood family, two dons and their children. Lucy had in fact told me four years earlier that her young cousin, the son of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, would be spending his gap year in Sri Lanka, so I had surprised Lakshman by knowledge of the visits he had arranged during my first year back – the other visit happened to be from a school where another great friend had just begun to teach, and he took advantage of it to visit the country himself. England in its own way, I thought then, was as parochial, and as small a country in the way interests connected, as Sri Lanka was.
Sam proved a good companion at Yala, fitting in readily with the communal life there in the bungalows, which I learned on that first visit to love, even though the facilities provided deteriorated with the years. We had the Yala bungalow, the only one in those days with an upstairs, where we played riotous Oxford word games in the evenings after our drive round the park. The most notable was ‘Knickers’, where the protagonist has to answer only that single word to any question that is asked, without laughing. Most people did not last more than a minute, and we did not have even to resort to absurdities such as the Oxford favourite, ‘What started the French Revolution?’
We saw everything we wanted to see on that trip, bear and leopard and herds of elephants and tuskers. The highlight perhaps was watching the best known one, Podi Puttuwa (who was larger but younger than Loku Puttuwa), swimming across the stream that had suddenly swollen up during our last night and prevented us from leaving in the morning. Raji, who knew Yala and its trackers intimately, had gone with them during the day to try to dig up the sandbar at the mouth of the stream, which was blocking its egress to the sea, but had not been successful. By evening though the rains abated and the waters went down, and just as we were wondering whether we had to go, the tusker appeared swimming across the water and then lumbering majestically away towards Block 2. Sadly, soon afterwards, the new party appeared and we realized we had to leave.
Meanwhile our protracted absence was causing tremendous worry in Colombo. My parents were generally quite calm about these things, but Phyllis had great fears about her sister’s unorthodox behavior, and had it seemed also excited Shanthi’s father, Dr Wilson. According to Ena, they had decided that Ena was leading the children of four families astray. I am not quite sure that that was exactly how they put it, but Ena relished the description, and put up with being upbraided.
It had been a wonderful trip, not only for the wild-life but also for the fantastic food Ena brought along, various versions of what she termed Alu Chicken, made with chutneys and spices of all sorts, her special lamprais, and glorious sweets. She also insisted on buying supplies at Yala and produced various forms of fish at what she claimed were simple meals as the supplies she had brought from Alu ran low. The staff it seemed knew her well, and seemed to enjoy our stays, despite the work, not only because of the feasts they too enjoyed, but I think because Ena was one of the few relics of the old spacious days in the Parks when a few constant visitors could do whatever they wanted.
Shirley Perera, one of the Deputy Wardens, who was a great friend, and later worked for Ena for several years, did occasionally point out that the Parks were not meant for the five families, as he roughly put it, who had been coming there over the years. Certainly one had to welcome the fact that they became more and more accessible to the people at large, and one could not disapprove of the use made of them as time went on – though one did wish that rules were more solidly enforced, to prevent excessive noise and litter. But I am certainly glad that, for a few years at least, we were able to enjoy the Parks in the way our families had done over the years.
For years, the book at the entrance lay open at the page recording the visit of my grandparents together with D S Senanayake and his wife and his sons, and also D R Wijewardene and his wife, whose daughter Nalini had married Esmond. I am not sure whether that memory too did not play a part in my mother’s insistence that I go on the trip. Though she herself hardly went to the Parks, my father not being an aficionado (he could not understand why we got excited seeing the same elephant again and again), she had a strong sense of family, and I think she was glad that, generally unsociable as I was, I had so much enjoyed a family excursion to Yala.