While the world outside Colombo was figuring with increasing importance in my life in the mid-nineties, at home the lights, as Edward Grey described the onset of war in Europe in 1914, were going out one by one. My grandmother died in June 1994, on my father’s birthday, when my mother had arranged to have the British High Commissioner over for dinner. It had been a longstanding obligation, but she had wanted a date when I too was available, which had been difficult to fix. The dinner had of course to be cancelled, and I do not think I attended another formal dinner at Lakmahal until January 1997, just before my mother left for the operation in Oxford from which she did not recover.
I was still attached to Sri Jayewardenepura University in the middle of 1994, having celebrated my 40th birthday in May, with 40 guests. I had found it difficult to fill up the number, which made me realize how out of touch I had got with Colombo over the preceding couple of years. When I resigned from the British Council in 1992, I had celebrated my birthday – and the recurrence of Wesak, in the 19 year cycle of full moons – with a retirement party, which had been a very jolly occasion. After 1994, I did not celebrate a birthday again at Lakmahal, travelling to Oxford for my 50th, after I realized that one’s closest friends are generally those with whom one grows to maturity.
My grandmother had been ailing for a long time, her tenacious hold on life slipping when first she lost her sight, and then when she had to use a wheel-chair. It was odd to see her reduced to helplessness, since for most of my forty years I had thought of her as ruling over Lakmahal with a will of iron. Widowed in 1945, losing all her sons, the last two in rapid succession in 1983 and 1985, she had still maintained her authority, which I fear acted as a curb on my mother. Latterly I had begun to understand why my mother spent so much time at Girl Guide Headquarters, which allowed for the full flowering of her equally vibrant, but much more gentle, personality.
My grandmother’s death, though it left an enormous hollow, should also have been a liberation for my mother. This did not follow, because my brother, who had been in Hong Kong for the last two years with his family, decided to continue there but send his children back to be looked after by my parents. Previously they had looked after his son for years, while he and his wife were pursuing higher qualifications in England. But they had seemed to enjoy this, even taking on responsibility for the boy when, after his parents came back from England, his mother got pregnant again, and found looking after two children difficult.
But that it was a responsibility they could not readily fulfil as age advanced I understood, when I came back once on a Sunday afternoon after a trip to Yala with my sister, to find my mother almost in hysterics because her grandson had not come home after church. She was trying to convince my father, who was enjoying an afternoon nap, that he should go and drive round the church premises, to see if the boy could be traced. I tried to tell her not to worry, that doubtless the boy was hanging around with friends, as all of us had done at that age, without parents worrying overmuch. But she quelled me by saying, with a quaver in her voice ‘Other people’s children….…’ Her relief, when they called the vicar and found the boy had spent the day there, was palpable.For over two years then, from 1994 till the very end of 1996, my parents went back in their seventies to being parents again, to a boisterous teenager and a small girl who was a greater trial, since she had been brought up by her parents, unlike her brother who had been from the start as it were a charge on my parents, and with whom they felt more at ease. So they were not able, in October of that year, to accept a sudden invitation from the Semester at Sea programe, to join the ship in Vietnam and sail to Colombo. It would have been a perfect holiday, and I knew how much my mother had enjoyed those sailings. But she thought the routines she was establishing could not be disturbed, and so I enjoyed the privilege instead.
So I was in Hanoi when I heard the news of Gamini Dissanayake’s death. I was staying with the friend who had first hosted me there, in 1984, when the country was still in the shadow of the Cold War. He was now back, redoing a beautiful old French style villa, where I was to spend many happy days over the next couple of years.
Gamini had been elected as leader of the UNP group in Parliament, and its Presidential candidate, and he had already succeeded in undoing much of the damage Wijetunge had inflicted on the party. Fences had been mended with the Tamil parties, and by the time I left his campaign was in full swing. Even though he did not expect to win, it was clear that he would give Prime Minister Kumaratunga a good run, and he would certainly have kept her on her toes after the Presidential election.
He had also decided that his party needed thorough overhaul, and had engaged Chanaka to draft his manifesto. I had been asked to assist, which I was wary about, because I felt the UNP had treated Ranil Wickremesinghe badly in throwing him over and choosing Gamini as its standard-bearer, despite the latter having left the party three years earlier in the revolt against Premadasa. Chanaka informed me that Gamini was equally wary about me, wondering whether I could be trusted, given my relationship to Ranil. Chanaka however assured each of us that the other would stand by any commitment, and I accordingly drafted the sections on education for the manifesto.
Gamini read everything we wrote, and obviously understood it well, for he summarized the main points with brilliant precision. He was also very definite about what he did not like, which was heartening, because we had seen what Mrs Bandaranaike had done in 1988 when Chanaka had contributed heavily to the DPA manifesto on which she contested the Presidential election then. Having accepted it without demur, when aspects were challenged during the campaign she had promptly reneged, which embarrassed her supporters and opened herself to forceful attacks by her opponents.
Gamini on the contrary was honest and incisive. Chanaka had included a pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, which he said he could not agree to. However he suggested that Chanaka include alternatives, of a return to Westminster or a modified Presidency, which could be decided on by the people at a Referendum. He told Chanaka that he could campaign for Westminster, but he himself would work for a modified Presidency, and had added that he would win.
Had he won the Presidency, I have no doubt that he would have fulfilled his pledges and his boast. Though previously I had thought him lightweight, in comparison for instance with Lalith Athulathmudali, as I got to know him I realized how much there had been in him before, and how much he had developed. As Leader of the Opposition to Chandrika’s Presidency, he would have dominated Parliament and made it effective in a way J R could not have anticipated when he introduced his destructive Constitution.
The LTTE’s most dramatic act of terrorism was its killing of Rajiv Gandhi, but India had further strengths and continued to develop. Premadasa’s death had a greater impact, because it stopped a man who was just getting into his stride, and prevented the development he had set in motion. But there was an opposition then to take over. The killing of Gamini Dissanayake was the LTTE’s most effective act of terrorism, for it made politics within Sri Lanka a farce, and allowed Chandrika with no constructive opposition to wallow in self-indulgence for seven long and wasteful years.
While the campaign was on then I had a week at sea, sailing for what turned out to be the last time on the SS Universe from Vietnam, arriving back shortly before the Presidential election. While delivering Interport Lectures to the Semester at Sea students, I realized two things. One was that I was finally middle-aged to the point at which I could no longer pretend I was on a continuum from the students, just that little bit older. It was clear now that I belonged very definitely to an older generation. As a consequence – unless indeed it were a cause of my awareness of how I had aged – I made much less of an effort than previously to enthuse them, about either facts or ideas.
Second, perhaps giving rise too to this last, was the realization that Sri Lanka was of little importance to anyone else. I suppose I had always known this in essence, but previously there had been reasons for the perception to be skated over. On my earlier voyages on Semester at Sea as an Interport Lecturer, to introduce the country they were sailing to, Sri Lanka had been scheduled on the voyage, so that students – even the most insular American ones – had had some idea of where they were heading. This time round, since India had been scheduled, but cancelled suddenly due to an outbreak of I think flu, there was no reason for Sri Lanka to have figured in the student consciousness. The academics on board made no effort to include it in their lectures, and what seemed to me the momentous political changes through which we were passing were obviously of no interest to anyone else.
Back at home, it was clear the UNP had lost interest in the election. In perhaps the crassest move of those opposed to Ranil Wickremesinghe, they had stopped him from contesting the Presidency in Gamini Dissanayake’s place, and instead nominated the latter’s widow Srima. They had allowed the party however to remain in the hands of Wickremesinghe’s allies, with the proviso that Gamini Athukorale, who was hostile to the Dissanayakes, would take over as General Secretary after the election. So Gamini’s posters vanished from the streets and Chandrika won handsomely, only the people of Mahiyangana, which had benefited from Gamini’s excellent work on the Mahaweli, giving a majority of votes to the opposition.
At the UGC we had two new Chairmen in succession. When Chandrika became Prime Minister, Prof Siriweera had been appointed to head the UGC, but in a very short time he resigned. Always a man of principle, as I remembered from the days when he had been opposed to UNP domination of Peradeniya, he decided that he would not serve unless he was allowed to exercise authority. I remember once, early in his tenure, I made a request which he looked on favourably, but said he could not fulfil. When I pointed out that he was the Chairman, he looked at me sady and said, ‘Not yet. I may be later, but not yet.’
Unable to change things, acutely conscious of the limitations imposed on him, he resigned. His replacement was Sirisena Tilakaratna, whom I had got on very well with while I was at Sri Jayewardenepura. This continued when he took over the UGC, while I was also close to Siriweera’s Deputy who continued under Tilakaratna, Prof Pathmanathan, who had also been at Peradeniya while I was there. Unfortunately they had a more traditional view of the university system than Aluwihare had promoted, and the new universities they set up settled into second rate versions of the old ones. It was only much later, when someone from the private sector, Chandra Embuldeniya, was brought in to set up a new University, at Uva Wellassa, that new thinking came to the fore. But by then it was too late because over the rest of the country second rate universities were churning out graduates who were difficult to employ – though I believe Sabaragamuwa was a bit of an exception, with the best employment record of the new universities according to the University Statistician, Dhanapali Kottachchi.
Tilakaratna insisted that there should only be one GELT Coordinator, though I am not sure whether this was kindness, knowing I had lost my position at USJP, or firmness to tie me down. If the latter, he was certainly not especially firm after I had been appointed, for I still continued to travel extensively round the country, while also getting leave to go abroad as and when I wanted.
Ceylon Today 10 Sept 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=5263