Acts of Faith, Alberta Fabris Grube, Bellagio, Chelva Kanaganayakam, Copenhagen, Days of Despair, Dorakumbura, Graz, Harold Acton, Italy, Kurunegala, Linda Hutcheon, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Old Place, Padua, Richard de Zoysa, Rockerfeller Centre, The Current Crisis in Sri Lanka, The Limits of Love, Tony Judt, Venice
Notwithstanding all this new and exciting work, I went away in the middle of 1993 for a month. Dorakumbura, by now Vice-Chancellor, was not pleased, but I had confidence in the new staff I had recruited and the systems now in place. It was good to give them a chance to work on their own, but of course the principal reason for going away was entirely selfish, namely that I had received an honour that I felt could not be turned down.
This was a residency at the Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio, on the Italian lakes. The Villa Serbelloni, as it is called, provides a month’s board and lodging, in a beautiful setting, to scholars and artists to get on with their work as they please. Initially it was mainly Americans who participated, but gradually other Westerners too were accepted, and in the nineties there was a conscious effort to expand the pool of beneficiaries to include the Third World too. This meant that one could apply to have one’s airfare paid, and also receive a small stipend. This helped with additional costs, such as travel before and after, and the occasional trip down to the village or excursion on the lake.
I was introduced to the programme by an enterprising American academic called Bruce King, to whose book on the Commonwealth Novel in English I had contributed the chapter on Sri Lanka. It turned out that I was in fact the first Sri Lankan to go to Bellagio, though Michael Ondaatje had been there a couple of years earlier and Yasmine Gooneratne was to follow. I was also happy to introduce Jean Arasanayagam to the programme, though I am not sure that anyone else resident in this country has participated since.
I took advantage of the trip also to attend the Conference of the European branch of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. I had been to the triennial international ACLALS Conferences previously, in Singapore and Canterbury and most recently in Jamaica, and by then I was seen as an old hand. So the ebullient Austrian who was organizing the European Branch Conference the next year was able to sponsor my attendance.
The Conference was held in Graz, and was an extravaganza such as I believe the Europeans had not staged previously. I was also able to go to Venice and Padua to deliver lectures arranged by Italian academics I had been in touch with previously. Most delightful of them was Alberta Fabris Grube, who entertained me right royally in Venice, an indulgence she extended again a decade later when I was also able to stay in her fabulous house. It was on the lines of a Palladian villa, and she took me on a splendid tour of the countryside around, to see several other examples of that distinctive grand architecture.
In 1993 my travel agent discovered a cheap ticket which allowed me to go to all these cities, the only drawback being that I had to travel via Copenhagen on each occasion. We had good friends there, but I did not think I could disturb them five times, so I made other arrangements for the first few trips. On one occasion however I coincided with my mother, and spent a delightful couple of days with our friends. That also gave me an opportunity to spend a morning talking to her, a luxury that was not readily available at home, given our busy and generally chaotic schedules. I remember taking her, with our host’s son, to the bus for her Girl Guide Conference, and marveling that, at nearly seventy, and with a worrying heart condition, she was still so cheerfully active.
Bellagio was bliss. Fellows arrived for four week stays, with changes every week. So, apart from one’s own intake, as it were, one met fellows, about five in each intake, some with spouses, some without, from six other intakes. Because of the Graz Conference I arrived a couple of days after the rest of my intake, late in the evening, driven up in a limousine from Milan. I was told that I could not interrupt dinner, which was a formal affair, and I was instead served on my own, with a manservant standing at attention behind me through the meal.
His skin colour suggested he was Asian, and conversation revealed soon enough that he was actually Sri Lankan. The administration told me later that he was the best worker they had, so much so that they had allowed him to bring his brother-in-law along too, and ensured they had all the proper paperwork to get residence in Italy. They were also allowed to stay on the premises, in a flat, which had initially caused some envy in the other staff. But the pair were so good-humoured that they were soon universal favourites. I benefited enormously from their presence, since they made sure my glass was always full, at meals, and also during the drinks that were served before lunch and dinner on the terrace.
My intake included Meenakshi Mukherjee, Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and I soon became fast friends with her and her husband Sujit, also a scholar in his own right, though his main work had been in publishing. We would thereafter meet on very familiar terms at Conferences all over the world, including in Sri Lanka, where (in addition to the 1995 ACLALS in Colombo) they came to a Conference at Sabaragamuwa and stayed at home for a couple of days, along with one of their daughters. Sadly Sujit – who claimed to be the inspiration for the dashing young cricketer in Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ – died a few years back. Meenakshi died a short while later, before I managed to make it to Hyderabad, to which they had retired, though when I did get there I managed to contact their daughter on the telephone.
Another memorable character in my intake was Tony Judt, an Englishman who had moved to New York State University, which subsequently took over Harold Acton’s Italian property in Florence and converted it into an adjunct of the University. I gathered that the property had first been offered to Oxford, which had turned it down, on the grounds that it would be too expensive to maintain. I would like to think it was Tony’s experience at Bellagio that made him realize, and then convince his University, what a godsend such a property could be, to introduce students to the wonders of Italy.
Tony was Jewish, and a strong supporter of the state of Israel, but opposed to its expansionist activities. He represented a strand in Jewish thinking that was morally persuasive, but by 1993 this was rare, and the determination of the hardliners in Israel, assisted by their dogmatic adherents abroad, was to close down that line of thinking. I gathered later that Tony had fallen into hot water with the unapologetic Zionists, and suffered much as a result. The campaign to silence him was symptomatic of why, though Israel has managed to get away with appalling behavior in the last couple of decades, the moral respect it commanded, in the days when it represented indomitable spirit that had triumphed over the horrors of Nazism, has all but vanished except amongst doctrinaire diehards.
The other friend I made with whom I continued to keep in touch was Linda Hutcheon, a Canadian Professor of English. She knew Chelva Kanaganayakam, who had been my host at the University of Jaffna way back in 1981, when I had gone up to lecture after the burning of the Jaffna Public Library and been chastened by the enormous grief of the students. When he died unexpectedly she was one of those who wrote a moving tribute which I also had published in Colombo.
But all the participants were fun, and I remember in particular the comment of the partner of an American musician, who was in fact on her third stint at Bellagio. I forget his name, but I remember him telling a story in which someone had ventured on an exciting but risky experience. When this was questioned, the answer was, ‘Look kid, this ain’t a rehearsal.’ I am not sure that I would have been as enterprising, but that attitude to life, that this is the only one we have, and we should make the most of it, seems to me admirable.
I worked extremely hard at Bellagio, writing intensively every day, so that I got a reputation amongst my fellow Residents as a workaholic. I actually enjoyed myself immensely, as I had done when I used to write in the peace and quiet of the two retreats I had enjoyed at home. First there had been the ‘Old Place’ at Kurunegala, when I spent long periods after my return writing my first novel, ‘Acts of Faith’, in which I tried to deal in satirical mode with the horrors of July 1983. Later, after my aunt Lakshmi had moved to Colombo and the old house had been sold, I enjoyed solitude in which to write at Aluwihare, where my aunt Ena built a shed for me overlooking the Gammaduwa and Pitakanda Hills. It was there that I finished ‘Days of Despair’, the much darker sequel that dealt with the Indo-Lankan Accord and the intrigues surrounding the battle between the Tigers and the IPKF.
But I had also had stints abroad, first in Oxford where my old College made me a member of Senior Common Room in 1985 to work on Paul Scott and also write my first work of political history, ‘The Current Crisis in Sri Lanka’, which Navrang in India brought out in 1986. Later I spent much time with a friend who ran a wonderfully sybaritic establishment in Bangkok. His maid produced excellent meals and aperitifs whenever I wanted them – as the boys in Bellagio did, before lunch and again before dinner, a laden trolley being wheeled out onto the terrace overlooking the olive groves beneath the house.
I found conversation with my fellow Residents at those times quite conviviality enough, and did not think I should also join in the games of bowls they played on the lawns. Walks I did take, but on my own, around the promontory over the lake that extended in front of the house, and down into the groves of a sultry afternoon. Apart from those, and an excursion on the lake to look at the little towns on its banks, and their age-old churches and monasteries, I worked solidly, on the first draft of the third part of my Terrorist Trilogy, ‘The Limits of Love’. This was based on the life and death of Richard de Zoysa, though I took enormous liberties with his character, and indeed my own, if the ostensible author of the book can be connected with my own I hope much less complex self. I also brought my political history up to date, and not for the first time wondered at how politics in Sri Lanka worked itself out in a manner much more bizarre than even the most melodramatic fiction could postulate.
Ceylon Today 23 July 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3546