Over a decade ago I wrote the following in a series that appeared in over a couple of years in the Island Newspaper. I had forgotten it until it was sent me by those seeking to revive the memory of Manorani Saravanamuttu, Richard de Zoysa’s mother. At a time when ‘Ceylon Today’ is reproducing ‘The Terrorist Trilogy’ which was written with Richard and about him, I thought it fitting to republish this piece
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly
Till her blood was frozen slowly
I was out of the country when Manorani died, just as I had been when her son Richard de Zoysa was abducted and killed, 11 years previously. And it was before I came back that Victor Ivan published in the ‘Ravaya’ an article that led to a very forceful critique of Richard in the ‘Island’. Those raise issues that I suspect will have to be addressed shortly. However, for the moment it is time, as Evelyn Waugh put it about another woman of extraordinary beauty, to speak of Manorani.
The last time I saw her was in the intensive care unit in January, which was a terrible experience. She was unconscious, and under heavy medication. Yet there had also been reason for regret on previous occasions I saw her, for her memory had faded. On the last of those, her 71st birthday I think it was, one tried to take comfort in the fact that she was no longer tormented by thoughts of Richard and his death. But her contentment was that of a child, so that, that too was upsetting, for the two qualities one remembered most strongly in her were both lacking – her tremendous dignity and her passion. These are qualities one does not often associate, but Manorani had them both in abundance.
I had got to know her well, as all Richard’s friends did, for their lives were shared in a very deep sense. This was inevitable in that, after she and her husband parted, she embarked on a new life and career in Africa, but gave them up to come back to Richard. He in turn recognized what she had given up for him and felt equally committed. They both, only half jokingly, felt they had been together in previous lives – I still have a copy of a poem he sent her shortly before his death, a poem about commitment in various incarnations. His comment was that they were not the only two in a time warp.
I probably knew her better than many of Richard’s younger friends, not only because I was older, but because the acquaintance went back a generation. She had lived next door to S. Thomas’, and my father remembered boys standing by the road to catch a glimpse of her as she was driven past. He had also known her mother, who like Manorani in later years had problems in bringing up children without a husband. He, the third of the redoubtable Saravanamuttus, had taken a new wife in Malaysia, where he stayed throughout the war, abandoning his first family.
Life must have been difficult then, but it was then perhaps that Manorani learned to endure graciously. She became a doctor, married the mercurial much older Lucien de Zoysa, and went along with his romantic urge to move to Bibile and grow oranges. But she was young then. What was more difficult I think was being on her own later, supporting her mother and for many years Richard, finding places to live in an increasingly expensive market, never quite sure what the future would bring. Yet she never complained. Only from the occasional remark about how tired she was, and the amount of sleep she needed when she had a break, did one sense the effort she had to make and the vulnerability beneath that composed exterior.
I went on holiday with her twice, once to Wilpattu, where she doctored the bungalow keeper who was killed a few months later in the terrorist attack that closed that park. The other time was to Kadirana, just the three of us, shortly after S. Thomas had sacked both Richard and me, getting rid of half the old boys on its staff in one fell swoop. I wrote about the occasion, and after she died looked up the passage, for the first time in eighteen years – ‘Manorani, driving in daily to her practice at Grandpass, strolled ethereally each evening across the lawns’.
Such beauty. Such dignity. And when we talked after dinner, over absurd games of cards – Richard was hopeless at these, and retired to write poetry – one recognized the intensity of her feelings, focussed now it seemed wholly on Richard, the wayward 25-year-old of enormous talent who still seemed so unsettled.
But she was supportive throughout, for she realized he had to work out his own multiform identity. Three months later, Tamils were attacked, and Richard had to find her shelter. A couple of years later he was helping Lalith Athulathmudali and the army, when they tried to become professional to deal with the first professional enemy they had to face, and began psychological operations, now it seems no longer a priority. Three years after that Richard was reporting for the Inter Press Service on human rights violations by the services in their counter-terrorist operations.
I do not know whether Manorani knew about all Richard’s activities. When you are close to someone, you can both know and not know. She was certainly supportive, certainly welcomed – and fed – all the ‘dark young men of random destinies’, as Scott put it, who shared Richard’s activities. And then, in February 1990, it all exploded. Richard was taken away and killed.
When Manorani said then that, that she would rather be dead, there was no doubt she was telling the truth. And that intensity of feeling meant that, unlike the deaths of so many others, Richard’s death could not be ignored. She was threatened but, as she put it bluntly, she would have welcomed the carrying out of such threats, because that would have brought things out into the open even more dramatically.
I do not think it any exaggeration to say that, had it not been for Manorani, the killings would have gone on. In all fairness to the government, I am sure that many in it also felt that the excesses had gone on long enough, the emergency was over, and the death squads were now taking on a dangerous life of their own. Richard’s death and Manorani’s identification of the killers, her refusal to keep silent, meant that the impunity with which things had been done in the last couple of years could not be sustained. I see no reason then to disbelieve Manorani’s claim that, a week after Richard’s death, Ranjan Wijeratne held a party at the BMICH, and told the squads that he would ensure immunity for anything that had happened previously, but for the future they would be subject to the law. And for that I think the country owes her gratitude.
Manorani’s life after Richard’s death was I think hell. The danger. Hours on her own with nothing to do. Searching for a home and for people to be with her. Poverty. Realizing that she was unable to concentrate. Giving up medicine, and then all work. Knowing that her memory was going. And then the illness.
Though she received a lot of support in those years, from Saravanamuttus and Liveras and Zoysas, she was in the end on her own. In coming back from Africa she had chosen to devote her life to one person, and with his death she had no desire to go on. Now, 11 years later, one can only hope that, like Tennyson’s heroine, she too has found peace –
She has a lovely face
God in his mercy lend her grace.