In Colombo, in the early sixties, at the time we got back from Canada, we certainly led a comfortable and well-protected life; but out in the provinces, as far as domestic help was concerned, it seemed even more sheltered and cosy. In Kurunegala, at Palm Court where my grandmother and later all her four children had been born, and where her brother and her sister still lived, life continued as it had done for the last half century.
Or perhaps for a slightly shorter period, from the twenties onwards to be precise. Before that, her father had been alive, and in his time life had been far more florid and exciting. All three children who were left, in their sixties and seventies now, described the way he had lived it up and the parties he had thrown when he had dominated the social life of the town, to the extent that natives could. Beyond of course there were limits. For years he had not been allowed to join the club, the preserve of Englishmen alone; and how much that had meant to him was clear from the photograph of the club committee after his admission which still had pride of place in what had once been his study. It was a photograph with just one dark figure in it, his own, amongst the formal looking white men who seemed to have made no effort to put him at his ease. It was very different from the photograph of him on his bicycle, the first in Asia his eldest surviving daughter used proudly to claim, surrounded by admiring friends and relations of his own colour.
In the sixties, as I developed revolutionary fervours, I saw him as a sad victim of colonialism. Now, more realistically, I can see that such behaviour helped him to become what my uncle, the Bishop of Kurunegala, called the biggest land grabber in the area. A lawyer from Galle, he had been the first southerner to marry as family legend had it into the Kandyan aristocracy. Whatever the claims about lineage, the fact certainly was that it was his wits that had restored the fortunes of a family in the process of drinking itself into destitution.
Conveniently enough, the Kandyan custom generally followed was that property, or rather the main house, went down through the female line. So he acquired Palm Court and the land surrounding it, a couple or more acres right in the heart of the town; and he added to it to create a mansion that accorded with the various estates he owned, and that would house the progeny that would inherit it, the females on one side of the large pillared hall, the males on the other. Each year there were more children, to swell the numbers on either side, a dozen altogether over fourteen years.
It ought to have been enough to found a dynasty. But things did not work out quite so happily. Five children died young and another two in the twenties, in the same year as their father. Both were young men, of notable fecundity apparently, for my father said he had been shown various descendants of theirs when he traveled to Kurunegala as a young lawyer. These however were peasants in the paddy fields, recognizable in feature he claimed, but not to be acknowledged.
Even more disappointingly, Hector, namesake and eldest son, got himself cut off after contracting an unsuitable alliance with a lady who was not only married but, possibly even worse, a Burgher, of more black blood than white. He kept her in state it was said, and the modicum he got of the family fortune permitted him to, while he himself lived in a little bungalow built for him at the end of the family compound. When the younger Hector was not visiting the lady, the legend had it, his sustenance consisted only of whisky and chocolates. He consumed these in such copious quantities that when there was rationing during the war he had an allowance of a dozen bottles a week. All in all he must have had a very pleasant life. But from his parents’ point of view, it was not a satisfactory one.
So it was only Hugh, the youngest boy, who carried on the line, and his only child was a daughter. That Marie, as she was called, never married, was perhaps inevitable. She was merely following a family tradition, established initially by old Hector’s sister Muriel, who had moved to Kurunegala with him, and outlasted her entire generation by a decade, dying when she was well into her nineties. The tradition was followed by her older nieces, Myra and Lilian, the former of whom died in the year that I was born, the same year as her aunt Muriel and her brother Hector to whom she had not spoken for thirty years. Lilian, emerging finally after half a century and more from Myra’s shadow, went blind a couple of years later but lived on in the left wing of Palm Court till after I had left for England. She had left it only rarely during her eighty years, occasionally for a week down in Colombo with her younger sister, once a year for a fortnight at Nuwara Eliya when she and Myra went up for the season, and once for a Grand Tour of Britain in the thirties.
Finally, in the sixties, she went abroad once more, to Lourdes, in the hope that she would get her sight back. Her last words to me before I left – and I believe we both knew that we would not meet again – were that I should come back home, and not marry an English girl. I remember thinking this odd, for she adored everything British, and sent tea to the Queen every Christmas. I even thought I remembered that once, when I was young and importunate and asked her why she had never married, she mentioned an English army officer who had paid court to her during the war. He was of French descent, she added, but her father had not permitted it. Of course she had not dreamt of questioning his decision, so perhaps her advice to me was perfectly consistent.