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In those years of constant change in the mid-nineties, continuity in terms of family life was provided most solidly by my aunt Ena. We had become great friends way back in 1983, when my adventures at S. Thomas’ had prompted her to seek to get to know me better. We got on superbly from the start, and as she said on her 90th birthday, when it was clear that she was dying, there was no reason to be sad for we had had such good times together.

These were first and foremost at Aluwihare, her wonderful home in the hills, which she had transformed into a magic retreat, full of colour and exotic artefacts. In addition to the batik and the embroidery done by her girls, as she still called them a quarter of a century after they had begun working with her, she had created employment for the boys of the village too, a carpentry shed and then a brass foundry. And then she had also started a restaurant, not one but two for she had no sense of restraint, K1 as she called it down the hill from her home where meals could be booked by tour groups, K2 on the roadside, which was not only a Kitchen but also provided rooms to stay.

The first was catered to by her own cook, Suja who she claimed could not boil water when she had first come to work, but who now produced the most marvelous concoctions. The other provided work for the middle aged ladies of the village, some of them relations. Though they exuded confusion as they bustled about, they were quite charming, and those who stayed and those who ate were entranced. The American ambassador, Peter Burleigh, used it seems to stay there often, which may well have been for nefarious purposes, but he was dearly loved by the ladies.

We had gone down often to Yala in the eighties, with memorable holidays during the times of turmoil, when we had the Park practically to ourselves. But when the JVP insurrection was over, more and more people began to visit, so we found other places too, Uda Walawe and Horton Plains and more frequently Wasgomuwa, which was a relatively short journey from Alu, over the Knuckles range to the Eastern plain.

Just as that Park and Maduru Oya were opening, we had a memorable trip, just Ena and me and Nirmali, and also Shirley Perera, former Deputy Director of Wild Life, who now worked for Ena, to supervise the carpentry and then the brasswork of the boys. Shirley was held in high respect in the Department, but he had resigned early, disappointed when he was not made Director. Premadasa had instead appointed an academic who could not cope but, by the time he gave up, Shirley had retired, and someone else who also did not prove suitable was appointed.

Nihal Fernando, who had introduced Shirley to Ena, predicted that he would not last, for they were both very idiosyncratic. But in the end Shirley worked for her for nearly two decades, and proved invaluable as she took on what seemed to me feats of engineering, a Chinese junk for the Twin Towers, and a huge abacus (along with 24 others of varying sizes, for or course Ena could not be satisfied with just the one).

The Park Wardens at both Wasgomuwa and Maduru Oya allowed us to stay in the parks though they were not yet officially open. We camped at Wasgomuwa, on the banks of the Mahaweli, cooking on open fires. The river was idyllic for bathing, and I still cherish a photograph of the two ladies lolling in the shallow waters in their diya reddhas. We went frequently after that to stay in one or other of the two bungalows, Gale Bangalawa as it was called outside the gates, and Kadurupitiya just inside. There were a couple of memorable Christmases there, with Ismeth and Dileeni Raheem, Ena producing both turkey and ham, enormous birds and enormous joints.

Ena stayed with me at Belihuloya too, for New Year, along with Shanthi Wilson and Harin and Priyani Abeysekera, at whose wedding I had been bestman. They had a small boy, but Priyani was a wonderful mother, taking him away to play on the swings on campus when he might have been obstreperous, though in fact he was an even-tempered and lovable child. Shanthi managed to commandeer Harin to drive her to Nuwara Eliya, which she claimed was round the corner, and Harin did not complain though they came back exhausted after several hours. Ena and Priyani and I instead had a much more leisurely drive to Diyaluma, along the escarpment that is always entrancing.

Ena came back to Belihuloya the next year, along with Nirmali, but her sister fell ill and she had to rush to Colombo to be with her in her last days. That was a sad period, for two people who had been good friends in my British Council days also passed away then. One was Yolande Abeywira, who had performed wonderfully in the plays and readings that had been such an important feature of my time as Cultural Affairs Officer. The other was the British Council Representative of my childhood, Bill McAlpine, who had held the position for well over a decade, and then stayed on in retirement.

He lived in Ranjith Wijewardene’s beautiful house in Siripa Road, with a lovely garden where he often entertained us, his sonorous voice echoing under the trees. I had published some of his poetry in the collections I brought out while at the Council, and I still remember a line in a poem he had written for his wife Helen, for her birthday. She was a bit older, and had predeceased him, and it was clear that he missed her though he gamely stayed on by himself at Siripa Road –

Remember in your recall that once

in a bush-bound garden ripe with limes

your vagrant voice came through

from an unseen green horizon,

where koels beat their calls

against the tumbling barricades of night,

to strike my wordless well and run

the waters of a poem on your behalf

My own writing continued apace during this period, with a travel book, ‘Beyond the First Circle: Travels in the Second and Third Worlds’, coming out in 1993, and then ‘Servants’ in 1995. That was launched on the occasion of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies Triennial Conference which was held in Colombo. For some reason the book went down very well with the Italians, one of whom wrote a review which was fulsome in its praise. She was sharp enough to note the influence of Henry James on my writing, and was instrumental in getting an Italian publisher for the book, though it was seven long years before it actually got into print in Milan.

I entered it for the Gratiaen Prize, which caused some complications. A couple of years previously I had met Michael Ondaatje, who wanted to use the money he had got for jointly winning the Booker Prize in 1992 to set up a similar prize for Sri Lankan writers in English. He wanted me to be one of the trustees, along with Ian Goonetilleke, the distinguished bibliophile who had been Librarian at Peradeniya University. We were good friends for he appreciated my radical stance in resigning when Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights were removed, and had got me to write for a satirical magazine he produced in the early eighties, one of the first publications to be openly critical of the Jayewardene government.

The third trustee was Michael’s sister Gillian Ratnayake, and I was happy to agree. But I did raise the question of what would happen if I wanted to enter. I thought that in such case I should resign, but Michael told me that my involvement was essential – he had understood that it was largely because of my work at the Council that Sri Lankan writers in English were now appreciated, unlike when most academics had roundly criticized them, and said they should be writing in Sinhala and Tamil. He suggested that a Trustee should simply withdraw from involvement in selecting the judges if entering for the prize.

I accepted this but found that, when the Trust Deed was drawn up, it was also specified that a Trustee, if winning the prize, would not be entitled to the prize money. Since I had hardly anything of my own in those days, this was disappointing, but I accepted the position.

We had decided that, of the three judges, one should be a writer, another a critic, and the third simply a distinguished citizen. The first year we asked Punyakanthe Wijenaike and Arjuna Parakrama and Ben Fonseka, the former diplomat. This was my idea, for I had got to know and like him when he joined a trip to Horton Plains that Nihal Fernando had arranged. By 1993 I knew that he was dying of cancer, so I thought this would be a helpful distraction, and he would not let us down, for he was an intelligent and well read man.

But he did, in that we gathered later that he was quite determined to award the prize to his old friend Lalitha Withanachchi, also it seemed because he thought she needed the money, for medical expenses I think it was for a child. So the prize that year had to be shared, between Carl Muller’s ‘Jam Fruit Tree’, which was generally recognized as an innovatively impressive work (though there were a few purists who objected to the excessive sex in it) and Lalitha’s ‘ The Wind blows over the Hills’ which was as anodyne as its title.

In 1994 we had a wider selection of good work, for both Punyakante and Anne Ranasinghe entered. The judges were Jean Arasanayagam, Nihal Fernando of Peradeniya University and Fr Stephen Abraham, Principal of St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota. We had thought it a good idea to have judges from outside Colombo and, since I was travelling a lot, it was easy for me to liaise with them.

Punyakante Wijenaike won the prize, which led to some unpleasantness since the journalist Rajpal Abeynaike claimed at the short list readings that this was clearly an incestuous business. Given this obvious evidence of the backbiting that dominated the literary scene in this country (and perhaps all else), I told Gillian and Ian the following year that I would resign, since I wanted to enter ‘Servants’ for the prize. They both urged me to stay on, Ian claiming that failing health meant I would really have to do everything, though they would manage this year, and Gillian noting that, even if I resigned, the backbiting would not stop.

Ian and Gillian decided that the judges should be Anne, and Neloufer de Mel of Colombo University, and Godfrey Gunatilleke, the head of the Marga Institute. I was duly shortlisted, and at the event to announce the winner Godfrey as Chairman said that the prize was awarded jointly to ‘Servants’ and Sybil Wettasinghe’s ‘The Child in Me’. His speech however had been largely a virulent critique of ‘Servants’, prompting the American Cultural Affairs Officer, Bill Dawson, to commiserate with me and wonder what was wrong with Sri Lankans, in that they had to be viciously critical even when they claimed to be celebrating something.

I thought the problem was that, not really knowing the people in the field, Ian and Gillian had picked three people who all saw themselves as distinguished critics. And Neloufer I knew had a very jaundiced view of the world, which I had found out when I was trying to set up a Drama Group through the Council at the same time I was setting up the English Writers Cooperative. I had wanted her to get involved along with Nirmali Hettiarachchi as counterpoints to the marvelous but not very organized actors and actress we had.

But after the first meeting Neloufer came to see me in my office to declare that she knew Nirmali was only there so she could become its Chair. Since Nirmali had tried to opt out, and then when I pleaded with her agreed to help but without taking on any official position, I realized that Neloufer could not but judge anyone from the backbiting perspective endemic in Sri Lankan academia.

But Gillian later told me that the problem over the Gratiaen award went even deeper, in that Anne had been deeply upset at not winning the previous year and was determined that no one should win. She told me that Godfrey had assured her that he would make sure there was an award, but the prize he had to pay was to write a critique of my book, and divide the prize with another writer.

As usual there were allegations of incest, Rajpal leading the pack, and I told Michael that he should defend me on behalf of the Trust. But it was clear that he was not prepared to say anything, not even clarifying the fact that I had received no prize money. I told him then that, if he did not make it clear that he had faith in me by asking me to take over as Chairman from Ian, I would resign.

Since he obviously did not care, I did resign, and the trust was reconstituted with Kamini de Soysa, who had done yeoman work as Treasurer of the English Association during its most active period, taking my place as workhorse on the Trust. My anger was I think justified, for when we were discussing the matter many years later, it emerged that she did not know I had not got any money, and the knowledge came as a relief since she seemed to have thought it not proper that I should have won the prize while being a Trustee.

But I suppose there was some consolation, in that Bill seemed to think some sort of recompense was due, and offered me a Visitorship to America to observe the election. That did not strike me as interesting, but he did arrange a special programme for me in the States the following year, which proved both immensely interesting, and very helpful for the new work I undertook at Sabaragamuwa.

Ceylon Today 1 Oct 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=6460

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