Affiliated University College, AUC English programmes, Belihuloya, Beragala, David Gladstone, Days of Despair, Diyaluma, Diyatalawa, Ena de Silva, Harin Abeysekera, Horton Plains, JVP, Lakmahal, Military Academy, Nirmali Hettiarachchi, Rahangala, Sabaragamuwa University, Wellawaya
The campus at Sabaragamuwa was beautifully situated, on a plateau below Horton Plains. Sadly none of the houses the Japanese had built commanded any sort of a view, but the moment you stepped outside you had a glorious vista of hills to the north. The place was also ideally situated for drives, most memorably eastward towards Beragala, from where you could either go straight on past Diyaluma to Wellawaya and the East, or else turn upward to Haputale. I had much relished the latter drive when I coordinated the AUC English programmes at Belihuloya and Rahangala, just before Diyatalawa, and this was a pleasure I experienced again, once a week for seven years, after I took over coordination of the degree programme at the Military Academy at Diyatalawa.
Ena and some of the hard core spent one delightful New Year with me at Belihuloya, way back in 1994 when it was still an Affiliated University College. Shanthi had managed to convince her office that she had work to do in the area, and in fact she made Harin Abeysekera drive her up one day to Diyatalawa to some agricultural station. Priyani sensibly stayed behind, with their son, which meant they could come with Ena and me on a leisurely drive to Diyaluma and back. For the rest, we had a tranquil time, Priyani very tactfully taking her son away to play on the swings when he became restless.
We were looked after splendidly by Samy, who had worked on an estate, and had a contemptuous approach to academics but decided that Ena was quite pukkah. He was delighted to be able to serve the courses he had produced for estate superintendents of a bygone age, and I think my own stock went up after that holiday.
We planned to repeat the experience the following year, not with the hard core, but with Nirmali, but that was when Phyllis fell seriously ill and Ena felt she had to rush back to Colombo to be with her. Nirmali and I stayed on, deciding that since Ena had actually made the journey up, we could risk Samy’s suspicions.
I never hosted Ena again at Belihuloya, but by the turn of the century I had built my own little cottage, something Ena had actively encouraged. She felt everyone needed their own space and, though by then there were only my father and myself in Lakmahal, given his relentless penchant for entertaining and for having people to stay, it was even more necessary to get away, given my now more central position in the household.
I was lucky in that Kithsiri found a wonderful piece of land, for himself, near his village, but then happily agreed to my buying it and giving him half. Initially I built a tiny cottage for myself, but after a year of having a former student looking after it and having to plan well in advance to send him away so I could stay there myself, I decided it was more sensible to build Kithsiri a house too, so that his wife could look after the place. She was also a wonderful cook, but sensible about it, so that the outrageously rich meals Kithsiri and I used to prepare stopped, and I enjoyed a much more healthy diet.
Ena stayed with me both before and after Kithsiri’s house came up, coping admirably the first time with what I produced to eat. I had just the one bedroom, which in fact only Kithsiri and much later Felix have also shared, but Ena despite her total femininity proved a gracious guest, and we coped quite happily with the constraints of space and having just the one bathroom. Most of the time we sat on the little verandah overlooking the river, and talked, incessantly, as we talked in Alu’s more spacious surroundings.
There we would whenever possible go to the terrace above the house, to the rock she had built up for Kusum’s wedding ceremony. That had been a spectacular event, in 1989 when the JVP insurrection was at its height, and many of her Colombo friends thought Ena was mad to have such an extravaganza in an area known as a hotbed of JVP activity. But she went ahead, and the guests came from Colombo, as well as from the village and the area round about, and there were no threats or disturbances at all.
I remember the best architects in Colombo competing to decorate the various sheds set up on the terraces (including the shed above in which I had written Days of Despair); I remember Kusum’s fiancé David being brought in on an elephant, and hardly flinching when he was taken up to a rock with a steep drop beneath for an intricate poruwa ceremony; I remember the exuberance of the Kandyan dancers, who pirouetted and somersaulted across the lawns, avoiding as if by magic the sheds that dotted them.
I remember too the human elements, the relation who had brought a case of pink champagne, and was quite upset that Ena was not impressed; I remember, when everyone else had gone, and I had fallen asleep in the back bedroom, Kusum suddenly knocking and looking most peculiar when I opened the door – she had told David Gladstone, who characteristically turned up late, that his wife was resting, and I believe she was quite convinced I was in the room with her though as it happened April, having run about madly during the wedding, had left early for some other escapade; and I remember my mother scolding Phyllis when in the middle of the wedding she commented again on Ena’s extravagance, which Ena told me had cemented their friendship since until then Ena had felt she had to hold back with someone Phyllis thought her own particular friend.
The terraces changed character over the years, with Ena’s passion for novelty, and now the upper terrace is used as a workplace for some of the girls, while two lotus covered ponds were dug on the lower one outside the house. The grass there, on which the dancers somersaulted, has been replaced by paving, for Ena realized that she was growing old and likely to slip (‘Try not to fall,’ said Kusum, to be told firmly that no one ever tried to fall) and thought a smooth surface advisable; there are still the remains of two huge logs which became seats, and then, as they decayed, shrines for all sorts of brass deities.
But the rock still remains on the upper terrace, with the bells that rang out when Kusum was married replaced over the years. Ena and I sit there often, talking, while Piyadasa brings tea and the cornucopic sandwiches that became an Alu speciality, as did incredibly crisp chips. The light fades as we look down at the valley and across at the hills and watch the birds flying home.
At my cottage we had the river below us instead, but there were also hills in the distance, and here too the birds would fly home as evening fell. Now I have an addition to the cottage, a garage with a room above and a room below, for guests, or for me to stay in for variety and more light. I don’t suppose I shall ever share a room again with anyone in the little cottage with its picture window almost on the river. But in my mind the small verandah, with the two deep chairs at either end of the long picture window, is as much Ena’s space as the expanse of sky and hills at Alu.