For there were also days of immense joy and tranquility at Alu. I have never found Colombo congenial, and from childhood on I would spend weeks during vacations with friends and relations who lived outside the capital. My favourite refuge was the Old Place in Kurunegala, but I also spent many happy holidays with W J Fernando when he was Government Agent in Kandy. There had also been one or two stays with Hope Todd, also in Kandy, before he moved to Colombo, and afterwards, when he went back there on work and stayed in the little house in Reeves Gardens which he continued to maintain. Memorable too were a couple of long stays with Derrick Nugawela on his estate in Bogowantalawa.
By the time I came back from Oxford however all that had changed, with Derrick in Australia and Hope and WJ firmly settled in Colombo. My aunt Lakshmi still continued at Old Place for a few years more, and I stayed there frequently, but the place was clearly on its last legs. That in itself did not really matter much, for I was quite content to do nothing all day except write, just as I had done nothing all day as a schoolboy except read. But what did matter was that Lakshmi and I did not have very much to say to each other. In the old days we had discussed books, and she had provided me with lots of exciting modern stuff to read, but by the eighties she was not reading very much, and we had less to say to each other about books and writers.
More sadly, from my point of view, she was not really interested in politics and society. It was not only that she was a diehard supporter of the UNP, which meant our views were diametrically opposed, it was more that she was not really interested in issues, and was content to live with her prejudices. We still got on very well, and I was touched by her continuing hospitality even while she struggled to maintain that large house on her own, but there was little companionship during my last few stays at the house where I had been so happy in childhood.
Ena on the contrary was an excellent companion, a voracious reader, and fascinated by politics even though she claimed to know nothing about it. She was also prejudiced in her own way, as I suppose we all are, but she had a charming habit of admitting to her prejudices, which meant one had to do the same. Discussions then were always stimulating, and never acrimonious. And she was also extremely perceptive, being one of the few members of the elite to realize early on quite how awful J R Jayewardene was. Though she was what might be termed a natural UNP supporter, she had registered early on how his government was without principle, and was moving towards disaster.
She was also clearsighted about what she liked in that, though she loved the Senanayakes for instance, she had no illusions about how destructive had been old D S Senanayake’s determination that his son Dudley succeed him as Prime Minister. Conversely, though she did not like the Bandaranaikes at all, she appreciated Mr Bandaranaike’s social vision, even while claiming that there was some humbug in the way in which he fulfilled it. She had greater respect for Mrs Bandaranaike, whom she thought a very sincere and able leader, though again she had no illusions about the disastrous effect of most of her policies.
What was even more stimulating was her appreciation of context, her determination to study and understand the society around her. She spoke often of her husband’s interest in the social dimension of policing, and her own concern, both for the villagers amongst whom she lived, and for village communities in general, was fascinating. The different educational and social attainments of her kinsmen, the way in which an educated middle class had, following Bandaranaike’s clarion call to nationalism, deprived their children of English, the failure of schools to develop thinking skills, were all subjects she had reflected upon, to my immense appreciation given my own interest in the subject.
She was also a mine of information on social problems, such as the alcoholism that beset so many layers of society, from her exalted and not so exalted relations who had given their name to the village down to the Tamil estate labour. Her comments on sexual habits were also illuminating as well as entertaining, as in her characterization of Jaffna society, which I had always thought of as being deeply conservative. She claimed the women of the area were very highly sexed and that behind those palmyrah fences, even in the forties when Ossie had served there, much had gone on, including schoolboys summoned off their bicycles on their way back from school. Given the concern about education, nothing happened on the way to school, an observation that added to the piquancy of the concept. I was reminded of all this much later when we had to deal, after the conflict was over, with a host of unwanted pregnancies in the North, which I had thought arose in part from the breakdown of family values at a time of social upheaval and anarchy. I am not sure I was wrong, but Ena’s description of life as she knew it in the Jaffna of the forties had also to be taken into account.
Above all I much loved her total concern for her staff. She certainly demanded good service, and got it, but she cared passionately about all those who worked for her at Alu, and in particular Piyadasa her major domo and Suja the cook. Every night, however many visitors she had, she would go to the kitchen to make sure they had eaten and were comfortable. The same was done for any drivers who came with visitors, and even for my security contingents when I had them, leading to what one can only describe as adulation on the part of all staff with whom she came into contact.
Piyadasa had worked for Sir Richard, though Ena claimed that he hardly spoke in those days, and could only bark. He was still pretty gruff in his speech, but he developed over the years into someone who could serve with great aplomb whatever guests she entertained. In the early years he was outshone by Perumal, who had great style, and produced delicacies with suitable flourishes, but as Perumal aged rapidly and faded away – drink, it seemed, and also a certain promiscuity, with affairs above his station, which led Ena to dub him Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Piyadasa settled solidy into the role of distinguished butler, though more Tintin’s Nestor rather than Jeeves.
Unlike Jeeves and Nestor though, in time he married, which Ena said was a very good thing, since she was always aware that the establishment she ran at Alu could not last for ever. He needed to be looked after and, though his wife was clearly of less consequence to him than his position in the household, Ena was right I think to feel that less dependence was ultimately better for him.