On two occasions I travelled with Ena in other countries. The first time was in India, when she was running a workshop for Jai Jatley’s Arts Organization. Jai Jatley was a power in the arts in Delhi, even during periods of Congress Party rule though she was closely associated with George Fernandes, one of Indira Gandhi’s strongest opponents and Minister of Defence in the last BJP government.
Jai had asked Ena and her cooperative to be the visiting artists at the Delhi Cultural Mart one Christmas, and the two dynamic old ladies had got on incredibly well. Notwithstanding that Ena was well over 80 by then, Jai invited her to bring some of her girls and boys over to do a batik workshop for Muslim textile workers in Ujjain, and accordingly Ena and half a dozen of her brood went there in the March of 2006.
I had some work in India at the time, and decided to go down and spend time with Ena, though ultimately I had to cut my visit short because a conference in Nepal came up suddenly. But we had three charming days together, two of them at the workshop where, by the time I got there, the tough Muslim families who ran the factories were all eating out of Ena’s hand – and feeding her at multiple feasts.
On one day however she and I hired a car and absconded to Mandu, which her architect admirer Anjalendran had recommended highly. It was a storybook city, of exquisite abandoned monuments, the capital of one of those monarchs in Moghul times who flourished for a few years before the intrigues of the Court and the Region knocked down that dynasty and another popped up somewhere else.
We explored intensively, palaces with ornate pools and gardens and temples, though Ena occasionally stayed in the car if the sun was too hot and the walk seemed too long. She did a great deal however, and even walked down to an almost concealed Hindu temple in a rock, and again out to a celebrated vantage point on a landscaped cliff to enjoy the sunset.
Even more spectacular was the strange phenomenon when we were having coffee at sunrise next morning, preparing for an early start back to Ujjain. The sun seemed to have a hole bitten out of it, and we could not understand what this was, having failed to register that that was the day of a dramatic eclipse. In retrospect, it is a strange thought, an 80 year old Sri Lankan and her middle-aged nephew, sitting on a terrace in the middle of India, at an abandoned mediaeval city, watching an eclipse they could not identify.
Our next trip abroad was an epic. We were the guests of Miles Young, who had been with me at Oxford, and whom I had met on and off over the years, though we were never really intimate. There were more contacts however after he moved to Hong Kong, to head the operations there of the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather, and about a decade ago I heard that he had bought some land in Sri Lanka. Always having an aesthetic eye for the best, he had decided that he wanted Anjalendran to build his house there, but as usual Anjalendran was fussy, and not sure he wanted a rich British client. Having heard that Miles knew me however he changed his mind, which made Miles grateful to me, though of course there was no good reason for this.
Anjalendran, who had been Geoffrey Bawa’s brightest protégé at one stage, though he had moved on to work on his own well before Geoffrey’s final illness, adored Ena, first for the work she had done for Geoffrey, and then for herself. Characteristically, he liked putting the few people he liked together and, though this did not always work, Ena and Miles got on very well from the start, sharing, as I did, the same sort of British literary upbringing. We all became fast friends, and indeed it was I think after our first stay at Miles’ Cinnamon Estate that Ena and I had set off on our first journey during my sabbatical.
Though we were not always free together, there were several more such stays at the Estate, including in time at the Palace as we termed the Syrian Crusader type castle Anjalendran finally built for Miles. He had a host of interesting friends from the neighbourhood, including the knowledgeable Herbert Malinga Guneratne who was a great raconteur himself, and an enterprising British couple who discovered whales and did much to help the fishermen in the area. They hired one of my students from Sabaragamuwa, a Buddhist monk, to teach the fishermen English, and though I was not quite sure the Rev Nalaka had absorbed enough English to actually teach, the experiment proved quite successful.
Miles was rarely in Sri Lanka for he had to run an empire in Hong Kong, and this included a house in Shanghai which was his base for the expanding advertising operations in China. To our surprise, having told Ena she should visit him there, he provided Anjalan and her and me with tickets for the Christmas of 2007.
We started in Hong Kong, in his house high on the Peak, where we had a traditional Christmas dinner produced by his Chinese friend Lammy who was an expert cook, and produced delicious Chinese style accompaniments for the English style roast. Then, though we had assumed we would be taken straight to Shanghai, Miles had arranged trips to Hanzhou and Suchou en route, to look at wonderful historical monuments and exquisite gardens, which we knew nothing about, our knowledge of China having been confined to the splendours of Beijing and Guangzhou. Miles was a perfect host, arranging superb hotels and renowned restaurants, but also bowls of noodle soup at wayside halts.
Shanghai, where he had an old house in the French quarter, was a charming culmination to the trip, with homely meals cooked and served by staff he had trained from peasant backgrounds, though on New Year’s Eve he took us to a fantastic high up restaurant in Pudong, the new city built in what had been wasteland across the river from the famous Bund. But of course we also had our visit to the Bund, for lunch before we left at the old hotel where Sun Yat Sen had inspired revolution nearly a century back.
Such generosity almost passed belief – as did Miles’ claim that it was nothing, and the tickets had been provided through the air miles which he had accumulated to excess. I had no illusions myself that, friendly as Miles and I were, I would have benefited to such an extent on my own. It was clearly Ena, along with Anjalan, whom Miles wanted as his guest, understandably so given what a great guest she was, as well as a great host to him when he was at Alu. Still, finding all of them great fun, I had no qualms at all about benefiting myself from such overwhelming generosity, thankful that someone of Ena’s unique charm could find having me too around on such occasions a pleasure. I had much to be thankful for, for the way in which we had got on so well, during that long ago loaf from Alu a quarter of a century earlier.