A Way in the World, Affiliated University College, Anil’s Ghost, Anuradhapura, Australian High Commissioner, British Council, Commonwealth, David Woolger, Dileeni Raheem, Dodo Fernando, Ena de Silva, Ena de Silva Fabrics, GELT Centre, Gill Juleff, Herbert Keuneman, In the Skin of a Lion, Ismeth Raheem, Jeevan Thiagarajah, Many Voices, Michael Ondaatje, Nihal Fernando, Nirmali Hettiarachchi, Peter Rowe, Phyllis Ratwatte, Raji Ratwatte, Regi Siriwardena, Richard de Zoysa, Running in the Family, Scott Richards, Shanthi Wilson, Suren Ratwatte, The English Patient, The Enigma of Arrival, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Yala
In addition to writing and loafing, there was also much talking. In the early years there was usually some sort of a party there, one or other member of what we termed the Hard Core, the group of relations (which of course included Shanthi Wilson, her parents having been close to both Ena and Phyllis for decades) which went to Yala. As that generation, my sister and Raji and Suren Ratwatte, and those they wed in the course of the eighties, became too busy for more than the occasional trip, I found an older generation in attendance, to go with Ena to Yala and also spend time at Alu. Nihal and Dodo Fernando were the main figures early on, and later Ismeth and Dileeni Raheem, all of them entertaining companions, full of fascinating information, not always the most useful.
I also took up several of my own friends, all my foreign guests whom I thought worthy of the honour, and the few local friends I thought Ena would find congenial. Ena’s favourite amongst them was Nirmali Hettiarachchi, who also took her family up on occasion, while Jeevan Thiagarajah also got on extremely well with Ena though I would have thought they did not have much in common. But, like Richard, his ancestors had been part of the circles Ena had moved in, and even more than Richard he had extremely good manners of an old fashioned sort, which Ena much appreciated. She did not however have any good words to say about Jeevans’s wife, and as usual her instincts proved correct, for some years later there was a most acrimonious parting.
There were also a few resident foreigners whom I decided were good enough to be taken to Alu, most obviously Scott Richards, but also my principal ally at the British Council David Woolger, and also Gill Juleff with whom I was running an arachaelogy project. Later there was the Australian High Commissioner Peter Rowe, though initially Ena was dubious about his official status and decided he should be kept down at K2 (where she claimed the American Ambassador spent many happy weekends when he wanted to get away). Having met Peter, and liked him enormously, she was duly apologetic and wanted him to stay in the hallowed precincts on the next occasion, but unfortunately that never happened, for he was transferred soon after.
As the years passed however I realized that I was actually happiest with Ena on her own. This was cemented I think when, in 1995, after inspecting the Affiliated University College and the GELT Centre in Anuradhapura, I arrived at Alu on a Saturday morning to be told that Lakshmi had been murdered. Having called home, and realized there was nothing I could do, I felt that I did not really want to see anyone, and it was best to be only with Ena. We drove down for the funeral a couple of days later, but came back again together, and I think it was salutary that I did not have to talk to anyone else as I came to terms with the loss. Mixed in with the horror of the way she had died was also a sense of guilt, that we had not done more for her in her last years, but to have expressed this at home, where my mother was also recovering from the loss of my grandmother less than a year earlier, would not have made sense.
Over the last decade or so, then, I have more often than not visited Alu on my own, to talk non-stop with Ena for a day or two. We talk about politics and about families and above all about books, of which she has continued to receive an inexhaustible supply from friends and relations. Until she developed difficulties about reading, which happened a couple of years back, she was a great source of information about new writers, though I should note that increasingly we both felt that the new books that were hyped up did not merit much attention.
In addition to classics, we were both devotees of the best of new Commonwealth writing, or rather the classics of that genre, in particular Naipaul and Rushdie. I know no one else who shares my devotion to the sustained descriptive analysis that Naipaul extended to the public and the private aspects of the colonial experience in The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, his achievement all the more brilliant for subjecting the English too to his exquisite exposition. Conversely, the sheer energy of Rushdie’s narrative style, the bravura of The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh, also won her enthusiastic approval.
We both much enjoyed Michael Ondaatje’s work, and the poetry of his descriptions in the early fiction, In the Skin of a Lion and Running in the Family, the world of which Ena had in parts actually known. The English Patient we both enjoyed, though the dramatic political ending, through the response to Hiroshima, did not we feel quite come off, just as again we felt that Anil’s Ghost, though characteristically evocative of a period, did not quite do justice to the political context. Ena and Michael got on very well, though again she had been prescient in not being as enthusiastic about his brother Christoper as Nihal and Dodo and Ismeth and Dileeni were.
Another very different literary taste we shared was for what Ena described as good bad poetry, the staples of schoolboys – and girls – in the days of the British Empire. She was most appreciative when I brought out a collection of English poetry that included all the old favourites, with Tennyson to the fore. But she also knew a lot of modern European and South American poetry, having encouraged Regi Siriwardena when he decided to try his hand at translation. Ena de Silva Fabrics had in fact brought out a collection called Many Voices, which had included verse by Machado and Prevert and Akhmatova and Neruda, practically unknown previously in a heavily Anglicized former colony.
Amongst all the lines we shared over the years, a couple remain in my mind. They are from a volume that she gave me, which she herself had been given many years before, I think by Herbert Keuneman. It was a collection by an unknown writer, quintessential good bad poetry, and I could see why she thought the two lines she showed me worth remembering –
We who have climbed life’s hill rejoicing
Go dancing down the hills of time.