I spent several Christmases with Ena at Yala and later at Wasgamuwa. The first of these was in 1987, when her daughter Kusum too joined us, and Ena decorated the Bungalow and its surroundings magically, Japanese lanterns winking at us through the trees as dusk fell. We were in Talgasmankada, the most distant bungalow, on the banks of the Manik Ganga. In those early days we would regularly venture also into Block Two, which required a permit and very steady driving in a good vehicle. Raji furnished both, and we would have long days out in that arid plain, a marked contrast to the lush jungle of Block One. We rarely saw anything, but the landscape was enchanting, and the picnics in isolated spots of green that had sprung up around scarce sources of water.
A friend from England joined us for two more Christmases, in 1990 and 1991, when Kusum came out again with the husband she had married in 1989, at a series of weddings including a spectacular ceremony at Alu at the height of the JVP problems. In 1990 there were just a few of us, which was bliss, though Kusum terrified poor John, having decided that someone who had been to Oxford and taught at Eton needed to be taken down a peg. This was grossly unfair, for John was never obtrusive about his position, but as Ena said, Kusum was just being Kusum. To me she was absolutely charming, and it was a pleasure to talk to someone so obviously bright who was keenly interested in the social and political upheavals going on in Sri Lanka at the time, without the partisan commitments evinced by so many in what might be termed the Colombo establishment.
Christmas in 1991 however was a disaster, for Raji had decided to invite any member of the extended family who was willing to come, and there were nearly 20 people in the bungalow, which was not at all comfortable. Raji had tremendous credit with the Park authorities, for in the dark days of JVP menace, when communications were difficult and people were frightened to travel, he had once driven down himself with the salaries of the Park staff. On a few occasions, though I was not fortunate enough to have been a part of them, he and Ena and one or two others had been the only ones in the Park, and allowed to stay on for longer than their bookings if there were worries – which they duly felt – about travel when JVP curfews were imposed or rumoured. But I think the excess of that 1991 Christmas cancelled whatever credit he had, and the Bungalow Keeper actually officially reported him, and rules about numbers were enforced much more strictly after that.
That was the last time I went to Yala with a large crowd, though Ena, despite proclaiming it impossible, almost always succumbed to temptation when a trip was offered, though she would complain afterward of boozing men and noisy children. The Christmases we spent after that were with Ismeth and Dilini Raheem, once just both of them and Ena and me at the new Ondaatje Bungalow just outside the Yala Park boundaries. It was appallingly designed, though we could not say this too clearly, for Ismeth had been in part responsible for its construction.
That was an utterly self indulgent holiday, for Ena had catered lavishly as she always did, but this time with emphasis on traditional Christmas fare, beautifully garnished turkey and ham that required formal carving. Dilini for her part was an expert in cakes, and a connoisseur of extravagant puddings, and Anila – who was always dutiful about staying in Colombo for family Christmases – had begun by then the practice of giving me my own Christmas pudding, which she used to make for family and friends after my mother’s death.
We had a couple more Christmases with the Raheems, in Wasgamuwa, at the Kadurupitiya Bungalow, though on one occasion we were invaded by a couple of Ismeth’s acquaintances who were engaged in a project in the Park. They were not however obtrusive, and one of them, who was clearly an aficionado, would simply stretch himself out in the porch to sleep, without any bedding.
Ismeth was a great companion, a fund of knowledge about all sorts of things, and I still cherish little details I learnt from him, such as the comprehensive coverage of the country by its ancient irrigation systems and the burial in the Bogowantalawa church of Julia Cameron, one of the pioneers of photography in the 19th century. Though his disquisitions sometimes stretched to excessive detail as the evening wore on with much to drink, he was always fascinating and, like Ena, compulsive about checking on things he did not know.
He was not however a good driver, and one morning at Wasgamuwa – I think it was Christmas Day – he got spectacularly stuck. His son Mirak and I had to walk back several miles with the tracker to fetch help, though fortunately it was daytime and there were no elephants about. This was in contrast to the last time we had had to walk, when Ena’s then new driver Karim (he had been in the army, and did everything very well except drive) got stuck in mud in the Uda Walawe Park. That was late in the evening, and we knew there was a large herd of elephants in the area. It was with some nervousness then that Ena and Shanthi and Karim and the tracker and I walk backed several miles to the entrance, nervousness that increased as we suddenly heard trumpeting from very near.
I was roundly scolded for that by Raji, on the grounds that I should not have let the ladies walk, but he knew as well as I did that Ena and Shanthi would certainly not have stayed on their own with Karim. And it would have been quite impossible to have got anyone to go to their rescue that late at night. As it was, Shanthi having had to leave early next morning, Ena and I, having been dropped at the Wild Life Office in the village, spent most of the morning getting them to find us a tractor that could drag out the pick up. Neither of us was much good at this sort of thing, having always had someone like Raji or Romesh or Harin to attend to the practicalities of vehicles, but people though slow were extremely helpful, and one realized that no problem is insoluble.