Where Piyadasa and Suja stayed on for decades, Ena’ drivers changed over the years, as did her mode of transport. When I first went up to Alu, she had a Toyota double cab, driven by Sena, a portly old man with a shock of white hair that made him look immensely distinguished. In those days Ena drove around often, going into town to buy her groceries and whatever else took her fancy, and setting off every afternoon on an excursion into the hills and valleys surrounding Matale.
It was nothing in those days for us to set off after lunch to Wireless Kanda, as we called the highest point in the hills to the East, before the road dropped down to Pallebadda and then to the area around Girandurukotte where lands had been opened up for settlers under the Accelerated Mahaweli Scheme. That was the area too in which later the Wasgamuwa Park was set up, so the drive became familiar for quite another reason in the nineties. In the eighties however it was purely to loaf, getting up to the highest point before the mists rose, and then driving back as the sun set.
When there were more of us, the loafs lasted all day, and included picnics, with hampers full of food, though that never stopped Ena from buying more if something like boiled corn was to be seen. On several occasions we would stop at the little stream on the road to Pallebedda, and frolic for hours in the water which in those days ran deep enough for such pleasures. In early days Ena too would join us, elegant in a diya redda even in the wild, but in time that stopped and she would sit on a groundsheet and wait patiently until we joined her to eat. Later we found that others too had taken to stopping at the spot, which put us off, and more recently I have seen that the stream is most of the time barely a trickle.
Sena lasted into the period of Ena’s second double cab which she got in the middle of 1984 as Yala trips became frequent. A couple of years later however he retired, largely I suspect because he was growing old and could not keep up with Ena’s endless travel. We saw him once after that, when we were driving somewhere and he popped up on the roadside, far away from his own home, having gone on an excursion himself. Shortly afterwards we heard that he had died. Despite the years that have passed, I still think of him as the driver, in the long lost pick ups of the past.
His replacement was Vijay, a lean and more energetic character, who turned out however to be a thief. Ena tended when travelling to give her driver a large sum from which expenses were met, not only meals at wayside stalls but sudden spurts of shopping when she saw mats or materials that took her fancy. Whereas Sena had been scrupulously honest, rendering accounts with almost tedious punctiliousness, Vijay jumbled things up and soon enough Ena realized that he was keeping large amounts for himself.
Next came Karim, who had been in the army, in the Armoured Corps as he insisted on reminding us. I did not quite understand this, until I began coordinating the degree course at the Military Academy on behalf of my University, and was informed – by a visiting Indian General who found out that the Commandant was from the Armoured Corps – that that was the elite, unlike ‘us infantry wallahs’ as he put it.
Karim’s army training had taught him to do everything except drive an ordinary vehicle. Inured doubtless to irregularities in the road by the size of the vehicles he had driven, he managed to put Ena’s double cab into every pothole he came across. But he was immensely useful about shopping, Ena by now having ceased to go into town herself for the marketing or for other purchases. She decided then that he should be kept on, but she could not have him ruining her vehicle or her nerves. She hit upon the happy expedient of selling her vehicle, though I suspect rising costs and the fact that she used it rarely herself now on a daily basis contributed to the decision. Instead she got a three wheeler, which Karim used for getting into town, and when she needed to go far she hired a vehicle, Karim being taken along as postilion, a role he filled to greater perfection than that of her driver.
The changes over the years, if arising from Ena’s own ageing, suited also the changing rhythms of my own visits. In the eighties I had been delighted to go exploring with Ena, not only on the long overnight trips we made, but the daily drives into countryside that was always refreshingly beautiful, the largest compass of beauty in a small area as I described it after one of the earliest journeys with Ena in 1983. Besides, in those days we would go up in groups, sometimes with foreign friends, and it made sense not to sit in the house all day, but to get out into the open and enjoy the scenery too.
In the late eighties that changed, when the JVP insurrection took the country by storm, and it did not make sense to go wandering off into uneasy distances simply for fun. It was also then that I found Alu the best place to write, Old Place having finally been sold. It was on the terrace above the house that I wrote much of Days of Despair, my novel about the 1987 Indo-Lankan Accord and the war that broke out as a consequence between the Tigers and the Indian Peace Keeping Force.
Ena built a shed for me on the upper terrace, and I would sit there at my typewriter looking across at the Gammaduwa Hills. Piyadasa would appear with something to drink mid-morning, and tea in the afternoon if I was still working, just as Lakshmi had produced refreshments for me at Old Place, and as Kithsiri does now at my cottage on the river. Years ago, when I was writing up my thesis at home, and wondering whether I would come back or try to stay on in England, I realized that one deciding factor was the way in which tea appeared as if by magic when I needed it, supplied in those carefree days by my old ayah Sella. I suppose I have really been immensely lucky in the comforts that have allowed me to write so happily over the years, having much more than the simple room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf sketched out in her writer’s bible.