There were several more trips to Yala that year, and one to Wilpattu for the April New Year holidays. Richard was meant to come with us, but we also asked his mother Manorani, at which point he declared that he had too much work and could not get away. Like many markedly self aware people, he was determined to keep the various aspects of his life apart. I had realized this the previous year, when he had asked me to spend some time with him and Manorani at Kadirana, at a small estate bungalow not too far from Colombo which was owned by a cousin of his father. The first evening was delightful, but the next day he decided that he had to get back to Colombo for work, and we did not see very much of him in the days that followed. Manorani and I had a great time together, me writing, she sleeping most of the time and reading trashy novels, but it was always fun to have Richard back, even if late at night, with time only for a hasty breakfast next morning.
While we were at Wilpattu, typically, he turned up on his motor-bike, which he had bought in the days we taught together at 8th Lane, falling off regularly and cultivating spectacular bruises, but ploughing on with his efforts to master the monster. He spent a few hours with us, claiming he was en route to some assignment. In fact this was true, for it was in those days that he had begun doing propaganda work for Lalith Athulathmudali who had recently taken up the position of Minister of National Security. Lalith had been a great friend of Manorani, and then of Richard, who saw him as a sort of mentor. He was very fond of him, and described him as Tigger incarnate, from the Winnie-the-Pooh books, full of enthusiasms that he did not think through properly. This was not quite accurate I think, for Lalith was ambitious and planned carefully, but Richard, while not entirely disagreeing, saw him as nevertheless comparatively innocent, and a tool in the hands of President Jayewardene.
That trip to Wilpattu was memorable for many reasons, including shared memories that hit Ena and Anila and me when we found, in one of our foraging expeditions to the village nearby, a packet of what was termed Dundee Cake. That was what my grandmother’s blind elder sister, Ida, used to serve us when as children we visited her at Old Place – it was a formal sort of visit, for we stayed with her brother Leo and Lakshmi in the main part of the house, and would enter her wing to call on her twice a day.
It turned out that Dundee Cake was what Ida and her much more formidable elder sister Eva had served Ossie and Sidney, when as young police officers they visited the then only middle aged ladies in the social whirl of Kurunagala during the colonial period. They used to play blow football with them, Ena said, and were much adored, in their dashing uniformed youth.
Ena also revived other memories of the past in bringing to Wilpattu the more exotic remains of her father’s old liquor cabinet. He had died almost a decade previously, so some of the bottles were quite old, but the green and gold chartreuse still tasted fine. When we finished the bottles, Manorani informed us that a great pop would be heard if we put a lighted match into them to catch the last of the alcohol, and so it proved.
Ena insisted that the only way to drink chartreuse properly was to mix the green and the gold in equal quantities, which was not possible except initially, since one bottle had much less in it than the other. But this was not a concept she gave up easily, and some years later Scott, or Chris, sent her one bottle of each kind, so that for a few months we could indulge ourselves at Alu.
Manorani did not come out on too many drives through the Park, preferring just to relax in the bungalow, sleeping in a manner that made it clear how hard she worked when in Colombo, just to maintain Richard and herself in the style to which, as a Saravanamuttu, she had been accustomed all her life. She was part of a practice in Grandpass, and her patients were poor, which meant she charged very little and had to serve a large number each day, quite unlike the fashionable consultants who were now the rage in the private practice outlets springing up all over the city, and indeed soon enough the country too.
Needless to say, Manorani was also consulted by the staff at the bungalow, and then, when her endless patience became known, other trackers too. I still remember coming back one day and finding the bungalow keeper, whose wife unusually was with him for they had just had their first child, deeply gratified because Manorani had spent much time with them solving health problems bottled up it seemed for months.
He was a young man called Tennekoon, prematurely grey, but with a sensitive almost beautiful face. That has stuck in my mind, for a year later we heard that he had died, when the LTTE launched its first major attack on civilians, opening fire on a crowd at the sacred Bo Tree in Anuradhapura. They had made their escape by driving down the Puttalam Road, and then turning into Wilpattu and taking several of the Park workers hostage, before mowing them down ruthlessly and vanishing into the jungles. Tennekoon, and his wife and child too we were told, once again staying with him, were amongst the victims.
That episode brought home vividly how close the terror was. Over the next couple of years there were massive bomb attacks in Colombo too, but it was that first murderous intrusion into ordinary civil life that made clear how intense the problem was.
Over the years others who had served us in the Parks also died in terrorist attacks. There was a delightful young man called Ambepitiya who was Warden I think at Horton Plains, and spent an evening with us in a smoke filled room, for drinks and dinner, valiantly coping with all our idiosyncrasies of conversation. He too died at Wilpattu, if I remember aright, but killed by the JVP when they were plundering monies sent up for salaries. And then, some years later, terrorists entered a bungalow in Yala and took away the staff, who were never seen again. We had been in that same bungalow just a few months earlier, and I remember a helpful bungalow keeper, and a very young helper called Sunil, who contrary to regulations had a pet cat. While we were there, the cat ventured out to a tree just a few yards away from the bungalow and was caught by a python. Sunil was inconsolable, and I could see his face as it was then, when I was told a few months later that the staff there had fallen prey to the Tigers. I believe he was not amongst them, but I have not see him since, and in my mind he is a part of all those who suffered in the terrorist onslaughts.
Wilpattu was to remain closed for years, and when it finally reopened there was nothing like the plethora of wild life it had reveled in previously. It was also the scene of one final tragedy when, in 2006, the writer Nihal de Silva was killed, in an attack that was thought to have been intended for a politician who was supposed to have been staying there. I don’t suppose the Tigers would have cared either way, but it was particularly sad that they should have killed in Wilpattu a writer who had written so movingly of that Park , of heroism in dealing with the Tigers, and of the dilemma of those dragooned into terrorism by circumstances.