I was rarely at home during the two years after I left USJP, not only because of work requirements and my travels, but also because I was finding the situation unbearable. My niece and nephew seemed a nuisance, not least because they were clearly a strain on my parents. My mother shouted much more than was good for her, so much so that I even once remonstrated with her on my niece’s behalf, only to be told sadly that she was doing her best to get her straight, but did not think she would succeed.
Upset though I was by the children’s presence, I realized too that I could hardly blame them, certainly not the little girl, who was too young to understand why she had been sent away from her parents, and naturally reacted badly. When finally the whole family was together again in Australia, she seemed to settle down, which suggests that the trauma of separation is something that should be avoided. But by then it was too late to tell my mother that a refusal in 1994 to take on the responsibility might have served everyone better.
When in Colombo I found refuge at Nirmali’s, in the office that had been used for the various book production programmes the English Association had taken on when the British Council decided it should not take bread from the mouth of British publishers, as one memorable directive went. Initially we had had an office in Bagatelle Road, when the Association worked for the Council on the first CIDA book project, and we had used the place also to house Scott Richards when he came out for various workshops. This led to entertaining stories about what he claimed was attempted seduction by the caretaker the Council had put in place, but all this had to stop when the Council withdrew.
The Association was then kindly given space in Nirmali’s annexe, where she also conducted classes, and I produced several books there, helped by my old Secretary at the Council who worked for us for very little pay at weekends. We also had the Thalgodapitiya girls, whose mother ran the Lionel Wendt, two noisy but extraordinarily efficient characters. Between them all they taught me to use a computer, which I had long resisted on the grounds that I was too old. The result was a stream of prose, including the novels ‘Servants’ in 1995 and ‘An English Education’ in 1996. Since then, I fear, I have never really been sociable.
Though work and travel were fulfilling, and it was salutary to discover the joys of solitude, 1995 was a bleak year in Colombo. In May my aunt Lakshmi was murdered, at the house she had built for herself in Bagatelle Road. She had moved there to be reasonably near us while also guarding her independence, which she had cherished for well over a decade and a half at the Old Place, my grandmother’s childhood home in Kurunagala. Having finally found some land to her satisfaction, near us but not too near, she had moved as the JVP insurrection of the eighties was gathering momentum. The pot of milk she boiled in the traditional ceremony for occupying a new house burst, and I think we all, despite our scorn for superstition, felt some foreboding at the time, though no one could have anticipated what happened. She was killed by one of the drivers she had hired through the Automobile Association, whom she had dismissed when she found him unreliable. Doubtless he assumed that she had wealth in the house, but he was wrong.
Later I found out that she had been worried about him but no one had paid attention to this. She was not at home as often as she had been when my grandmother was alive, when she had dropped in regularly to spend time with her, even though communication was difficult. My mother, who was not in any case a person to spend time in chatting, might have felt more responsible for Lakshmi when she called in after that, in search of companionship, but she was overwhelmed with her other duties. I was rarely at home, and in any case had moved out of the easy camaraderie we had enjoyed when I was younger, and spent many holidays at the Old Place, with Lakshmi and her father and her older aunt in my childhood, and then later with Lakshmi on her own. I should and could have done more, realizing that Lakshmi had no one now but us. But, with my own preoccupations, so trivial it seemed in the face of murder, I neglected what should have been a prime obligation.
So she died, on her own. I was at Aluwihare, the next home away from home that I had found, having got there on the Saturday morning after some work at the AUC at Anuradhapura and GELT inspections. My aunt Ena broke the news abruptly, as I arrived, which was probably all for the best. It seemed there was nothing I could do, so I stayed with her till Monday, the day of the funeral, and went back with her from Colombo after the funeral, in theory for her comfort – she was the closest to us of the Kurunagala relations, except for my grandmother’s immediate family – but more for my own shattered spirit. The next day was my birthday, a more momentous one than any, for Lakshmi’s death was for me the watershed between youth and age, marking the break with the Kurunagala past that only I of the younger generation had relished, along with her and her father, my grandmother and my uncle Lakshman the Bishop.
For the interment of the ashes in Kurunagala I went down the night before and stayed at the Bishop’s house, in an effort to relive the past and all that the town and the family there had meant to me. I walked down to look at the sad remains of the Old Place, called on my Moonemalle cousins opposite, and went with my mother also to see Dr Soma, who used to drop in every day in my childhood, for drinks with Lakshmi’s father before lunch and then again before dinner. I had grown used to alcohol while with them, but later he hardly came round when I stayed with Lakshmi, for she was nothing like as sociable.
Having done nothing else for her after her death, I undertook to ensure that her name was added to the cross that commemorated her parents, in the Catholic section of the cemetery. I asked the former Supreme Court judge Victor Perera to help, and he duly got the words inscribed. I drop in often still to think of her, and to visit the graves of all the others, stretching back to John Graham Jayatilleke Hulugalle who made the family fortunes in the middle of the 19th century. In front of his grave is that of his epicene son in law John Lewis Marcellus Moonemalle, who married Hulugalle’s daughter Mary Anne, whom my uncle Lakshman in his iconoclastic fashion claimed had been christened Makamma. In front of them is their more robust son in law from Galle, Edward Goonewardene, who married their daughter Ada. Around these two lie seven of their twelve children, including my grandmother’s youngest brother Brian, who died when he was five. I used to think that I would have liked half my ashes placed in that grave, but I suspect all that will be too complicated for those who will have to deal with my funeral, and I should rest in places that have given me greater pleasure in recent times.
As a mark of the way time had moved on, dealing with the legal requirements when Lakshmi died was entrusted to our generation, my sister and Kshanika, the female cousin on my uncle’s side. They did not have an easy time because she had died intestate, which seemed odd in one normally so organized. My father told me he thought she had wanted to leave her house to me, but he could not be sure, and in any case my mother had turned down the suggestion. This is not something I have much regretted, and whatever remained was divided amicably, my sister kindly giving me what I thought the most precious item there was, an old lampshade. I had seen its twin shattered once, when I had gone back to Kurunagala one evening with Lakshmi, and she had promptly declared that a snake had got in and done this.
She was right, for suddenly, as we stood in the gloomy hallway surveying the shattered glass, the snake reared up its ugly head from the long broad mantel that ran round the room. It had clearly sensed what was in store, for Lakshmi was not in a forgiving mood. She duly did it in, having sent me to get her cousin Ivor Moonemalle to help. He was a quiet soul, and it was Lakshmi rather than he who dispatched the writhing creature.
The piano, the other precious relic, went to my cousin Ranil. Sadly no one bothered about the photographs, and they were stored in a case which was attacked in time by white ants. The picture of old Hulugalle then vanished, but I did manage to find John Marcellus lurking in another cupboard, and I have him now in my country retreat, the first place I could finally call my own.
Brian too has vanished, the oval photograph of a large eyed child in a splendid hat that used to hang in the little room with the four poster bed where I spent so many holidays. He survives though as a tiny speck in two pictures of a horse and carriage, sitting between his two eldest sisters. Both are with me in the country, along with a beautiful family group of the seven siblings who survived into youth, taken shortly before George died in his early twenties.
Ceylon Today 17 Sept 2016 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=5593