Aluwihare, Amparai, Anamaduwa, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Batulu Oya, Belihuloya, Beragala, Buttala, Chitra Wickramasuriya, David Woolger, Diyaluma Falls, Gam Udawa, Getamanna, Gill Juleff, Haputale, Ismeth Raheem, John Keleher, Mahaweli, Mahiyangana, Matale, Matara, Medawachchiya, Neil Kemp, Nirmali Hettiarachchi, Paru Nagasunderam, Polonnaruwa, Rahangala, Rex Baker, Samanalawewa Dam, Somasundara, Vavuniya, Weerawila
I also much relished in my new job the opportunities I had to travel outside Colombo, to explore again and again what I had once described as the widest range of beauty to be found in the smallest compass in the whole world.
I had got used to frequent travel in my last years at the British Council, first for the office on the Furniture Project which had been started for the North and East soon after the Indo-Lankan Accord. When that unraveled, we had persuaded the Overseas Development Administration to transfer the funds to two other Districts, in addition to Amparai, which remained comparatively safe for travel.
The two selected, because of their proximity to the East, were Matale and Matara. I was able therefore to drop in frequently on my Aunt Ena in Aluwihare and on my father’s brother and his wife in Getamanna. But I also stayed often in Resthouses, and grew to love what I saw as their unity in diversity. The country had a range at different levels of comfort and cleanliness, ranging from the dingy old one at Mahiyangana to the lovely new one in the same city, on the bank of the Mahaweli. I loved too the little ones, at Batulu Oya, and Weerawila overlooking the reservoir, and Anamaduwa looking over paddy fields when Chandrika first changed the clocks and the evening stretched out for ages, as I remembered from Summer Time at Oxford.
In the last years at the Council I had also travelled for a number of English projects which had been taken over by the English Association when the more enlightened team of Rex Baker and John Keleher left. Their replacements worked to rule as it were, and did not want Council resources spent on outside work, but by then the Canadians and the Australians and even the European Union had embarked on English projects and wanted to continue with my services.
I was able to use some of the experts I had first used through the British Council for these programmes. David Woolger disliked the new dispensation as much as I did, and argued that he was perfectly entitled to engage in such work given his brief for developing Regional English Support Centres. I also used Scott Richards who had worked with me first on Drama Projects, but who was able to train teachers in using drama to promote speaking skills.
But I relied largely on Paru, and most of all on Nirmali Hettiarachchi, who was fantastically energetic, and also brought us extra rations when we stayed out for long periods. I remember in particular a week in Amparai, where the best the English Advisers could do was a woefully hot shed. And then there was Vavuniya, where both ladies refused to stay in the appalling Circuit Bungalow the English Adviser had booked, so we retreated to the Medawachchiya Rest House which was delightful (I had stayed in the Vavuniya one when on my own, but it was a haven for drunkards, and was not suitable for the ladies).
We were joined occasionally by Chitra Wickramasuriya, who had been Professor of English in Colombo and was now in her seventies, but was game for anything. She was extremely short, which made long distance travel uncomfortable, until we hit on the happy expedient of placing her in the middle of the back seat so she could rest her feet on the divide in the floor, instead of having them dangle. The only drawback for the rest of us was that she needed to use a toilet frequently, so we had to stop often at resthouses on our journeys, where it seemed polite to order something to drink. Nirmali, who was a much hardier traveler, complained that Chitra always drank copiously on these occasions, which made another stop necessary sooner rather than later.
The Belihuloya AUC was housed in the camp the Japanese had established when they were building the Samanalawewa Dam, which meant it had excellent accommodation and thus soon became our favourite venue. I had been to the camp a few years earlier, when I was trying to set up a second archaeological project for the British Council. The first had involved developing Visitor Centres and lighting up Polonnaruwa, both of which were effectively done. But this had no lasting impact, given the lack of organizational capacity then at the Central Cultural Fund. The lighting at Polonnaruwa was used simply to show the place off to visiting dignitaries, instead of forming the core of a programme to develop evening entertainment at the site, so as to encourage tourists to stay over in the neighbourhood instead of at more distant hotels.
We had used as a Consultant for that project a young protégé of Siran Deraniyagala called Gill Juleff, who was extremely competent, and she persuaded Rex Baker to also bid for a project at Samanalawewa. She thought this vital, for she said the dam that was being built there with Japanese support would destroy evidence of an ancient iron smelting process that was unique to Sri Lanka. By the time we drafted the Project though we had to deal with the new Director, Neil Kemp, whom Gill found as irritating as I did. He assumed he knew all about Project Management, and how to persuade the British Overseas Development Administration to agree. So he was furious when I managed to get the ODA visiting team to Sri Lanka to accept the proposal over an evening drink. It turned out that the chap in charge had worked previously for my old flat-mate, and seemed still to be in healthy awe of her – which was the type of connection that Neil resented, with his envy of Oxford.
Gill, who had very good relations with the British who ran the other side of the Samanalawewa Project, the building of the tunnel for power generation, took me to their camp on the other side of the hill, where we had a most convivial evening. The next day we lunched at the Japanese Camp at Belihuloya while meandering over the area to look at concealed traces of iron ore. It was ironically that trip, with a young British archaeologist, that brought home to me how one-sided were the official histories of Sri Lanka, which emphasized only the kingdom at Anuradhapura. The developed civilizations of the south – which Gill noted had produced what was considered in the old Arab chronicles the best steel in the world – had been forgotten in the priority given to the agricultural achievements of the north of the country. Thus the long history of the south, as exemplified by the emergence of Dutugemunu, and the west, from where his mother had come, were ignored, belittling the industrial and trading achievements of the country in centuries past.
Some of this suppression, it seemed, had to do with caste, as I gathered Ananda Coomaraswamy had noted when he had tried to find evidence of the steel industry. The producers had in time been sidelined, with the trade conducted through more powerful interests, including the temples that were controlled by the dominant caste. So the practice gradually fell into abeyance, until its memory even was lost. I was delighted then to have helped Gill to get her project off the ground, and in time I believe she received an award for her research. Over a decade later, helped by the indefatigable Ismeth Raheem, a mine of information about all aspects of Sri Lankan history, she was back to talk about her work, but sadly we only made contact then over the telephone.
Belihuloya then seemed almost familiar territory, compared to the other places where we stayed. Somasundara had hired an excellent guest house keeper who had formerly worked for a planter, and was therefore deeply contemptuous of many of my peers. Nirmali however soon won Samy over, and he looked after us extremely well, including during a New Year holiday when we escaped the rigours of Colombo. I had also done this the previous year, with Ena and some other friends, and we had an idyllic break.
The AUC was magnificiently situated, on the first plateau down from the World’s End Range, so that you looked up to the most wonderful line of hills. Sadly, for some bizarre reason, the Japanese had built all the houses to a design that precluded decent views from the inside rooms. It had magnificient drives in all directions, in particular eastward along the escarpment to Beragala from where you had a superbly scenic steep climb to Haputale. For those who could not understand why I spent so much time in what to them seemed a very primitive part of the country, I had only to explain the beauties of the hour long journey between Belihuloya and Rahangala, which I never tired of making.
Buttala, to which also I had soon enough to go, lay further down beyond Beragala, with the Diyaluma Falls on the way. That AUC was in the old Gam Udawa site that was Premadasa’s last, in 1992. Talking to the local people working at the College one realized what breadth of vision lay behind a concept Colombo had dismissed as a grandiose birthday party. Premadasa had realized that such a showpiece was the best way to ensure infrastructural development in neglected areas, roads and electricity and water supplies. The gratitude of the villagers round about for what he had done made me realize that we in Colombo were simply snobbish in indulging ourselves in superior simplifications of the very real benefits the Gam Udawa programme had produced.
Ceylon Today 16 July 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3360