While I was engaging in all these other initiatives and much travel, I realized that I should really be settling down too to something more. The GELT course was not a full time occupation, and in any case the Chairman had indicated that he did not think pre-University English should be the responsibility of the UGC. Meanwhile the AUCs that had become universities were suggesting that I might like to join them full-time.
If I were to do so, the most appealing was clearly Sabaragamuwa University, which had been made up of the AUCs at Belihuloya and Rahangala and Buttala. Its principal academic in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages turned out to be the sister of my cousin Kshanika’s former husband, Jeevaka Weeratunge. I had first met the family properly soon after the wedding in 1975, on my way back to Oxford between degrees. Dr Soma Weeratunge was our ambassador in Moscow then, and his younger daughters, two very lively girls, looked after me energetically before and after the main point of that visit, a journey to Tbilisi in Georgia, the old Tiflis that I had always wanted to visit.
I went by train, a magnificient journey through the Caucasus mountains. The old ladies in my compartment seemed to love me, as well as the other young man there, since we had given up to them the lower bunks we had. They insisted on feeding me throughout the journey, while the youngster gave me vodka, and chased away some Muslims who came in to claim kinship by asserting loudly that I was a Christian (this had been established early on). I was reminded then of the long train journey I had made way back in 1972 from Budapest to Kiev, going to join my father who was on a Parliamentary delegation in the Soviet Union. The babushkas who looked after the carriages were still there, with their samovars full of tea, supplied frequently at very low cost.
Tiflis was a joy, culminating in the open air opera where the performance was of La Traviata. Two boys who befriended me insisted on buying my ticket and, when I asked what I could do in return, said a Led Zeppelin record would be nice. I had never heard of the group, but I duly found one when back at Oxford and posted it on.
Back in Moscow the Weeratunge girls took me to museums while Piyadasa, who had been a boy at home and then worked for my father at the Attorney General’s Department before moving to the Embassy in Moscow, arranged ballet tickets as well as the trip to Tbilisi. He did all this even while having to look after his wife who had given birth prematurely. But he said he did not have to worry, for the Russians had looked after mother and child marvelously, the latter in an incubator for several weeks. She later worked for me when we had a bookshop at the British Council, married someone she met while there, and when her own daughter grew up was busy arranging for her, having sent her to study in English medium, to go abroad to university. Piyadasa died some years back, having continued to worry about us even when ill himself. Now his wife continues the tradition, regularly bringing me the garlic curry I love.
In 1996 one of the Weeratunge girls was at Belihuloya, married to a German after postgraduate work in Sociology, and she got me involved in designing the syllabuses for the degree course. Somasundara had suggested a Major-Minor combination for all students instead of the traditional dichotomy between a Special degree and a General one, and this struck me as a step in the right direction, with regard to the curriculum reforms the system sorely needed.
I was not sure however that I wanted to return to the system as a Lecturer, but on one occasion when I was delivering some visiting lectures, which I used to do in a round trip between the three campuses of the university for the last AUC batches, the Registrar told me that I was eligible to be a Professor. So, not quite sure if I was sensible in committing myself, I submitted an application towards the end of 1996.
When I had come back to Lakmahal earlier that year after a trip out of Colombo, my mother called me upstairs to be told that she had been advised to have an operation immediately. Over the last few years she had gone into hospital about once a year, and we had known her heart was getting weaker, but over the years we had stopped worrying too much. Early in the nineties, when my father still went abroad occasionally, we had set up a system whereby she would telephone me downstairs if she felt really bad. But we had had recourse to this only once, and she had felt alright again after taking the emergency pills she kept by her bedside.
In 1995 indeed she went abroad, which was frowned upon by most of her medical advisers, except for the Navaratnams, who knew her well and probably understood her condition better than the specialists or family. She was determined to attend the weddings, in England and Denmark, of the children of relations and friends. Despite her condition she wanted to live life to the full, and indeed she came back from the trip, as she did from her rest periods in hospital, full of energy.
The warning in the middle of 1996 however seemed serious, and it seemed as if she would have to go to India immediately for a bypass. However my sister in law was in Colombo at the time, on one of her occasional visits to see her children, and checked things out further, and it was decided that she could hold on a bit longer. My brother thought it best that she be operated on in England, at the John Radcliffe Hospital where he had worked, and where there was an excellent Sri Lankan heart surgeon. It was decided then that she could wait until Dr Ravi Pillay could take her on, and the rest of the year passed without any further worry, and she was able to see the children safely off to Australia when my brother and his wife finally settled down there. Indeed she even underwent minor surgery for her eyes, and came out of it well, which seemed to bode well for the operation in prospect.
1996 however saw a totally unexpected tragedy, when Chanaka Amaratunga was killed in an accident. Though he coped with great dignity, he had been deeply upset by what he saw as Asitha Perera’s betrayal in not giving up his Parliamentary seat as promised. He was hurt too by the fact that Mr Ashraff, whom he had thought a man of honour, acquiesced in Asitha’s intransigence.
This was sad also for the country for, had Chanaka been in Parliament, he would undoubtedly have taken forward the negotiations that Chandrika had embarked on with the principal Tamil political party, the Tamil United Liberation Front. He was very close to Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was by then the leading figure in the TULF, and he was deeply committed to pluralism, which was not the case with G L Pieris, who was Chandrika’s Minister of Constitutional Affairs and in charge of discussions. G L in turn, though he had contributed actively to the deliberations of the Council for Liberal Democracy when Chanaka worked on ideas for constitutional reform at the turn of the decade, was not able to work with people more competent than himself, and did not know how to make use of Chanaka.
As discussions stalled, I found that representatives of the various Tamil parties would gather at Castle Lane, the office of the Liberal Party, to discuss their difficulties with Chanaka. I gather that Mangala Samaraweera too approached Chanaka for assistance but, with no official position, he could not contribute as much as he might have, had he been in Parliament. He also continued dubious about Chandrika, and I suspect the feelings were reciprocated, even though both recognized the absence of any racism in the other.
Chanaka travelled abroad much during this period, not only for meetings of Liberal International, which we had joined as one of the first Asian Liberal parties to do so, but also for the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats which had been founded recently. Though I had been to the LI meetings at which we had made our case for membership, and then a couple more, most memorably in Berlin and Warsaw when Eastern Europe was beginning to move westward, I could not manage more, since LI did not provide funding. CALD however did, and I went to meetings in Taiwan and the Phiippines in the year before Chanaka died, and much appreciated the opportunity to talk to him at length.
Shortly before he died, we had another long evening together, at the Eighty Club after a Liberal Party Executive Committee meeting. Nirgunan Tiruchelvam was with us for part of the time, and it seemed as though we were back in the days when, as enthusiastic youngsters, we had first thought it essential to challenge Jayewardene. Chanaka had complained over the years that I had become boring, for I no longer enjoyed long discussions with alcohol fuelling one’s debating capacities. On that last evening in July we did not argue much, but we drank steadily, discussed the present at length, and reminisced fondly about the past.
With his political talents unfulfilled, Chanaka had reverted to his other love, drama. I remembered then that, when he had first come to Oxford, another of my father’s protégés, I had assumed that it was drama he was interested in, since I had known him before only through seeing him on stage. But he told me it was the Union he wanted to get involved with, which was easy for I was sharing a flat at the time with the President.
Chanaka, being an excellent speaker, got his paper speech earlier than all his contemporaries then, and was elected Secretary at the end of his first year. Unfortunately, after I left, he engaged in what I thought inappropriate alliances, and did not get much further. One of my friends indeed told me that, after I left and Chanaka got involved in new alliances, they had looked at each other and wondered whether this had not been what they termed Rajiva’s last and greatest joke. But I think they would have supported him if he had not crossed sides, to support Alan Duncan, who was virulently anti-homosexual at the time but came out when he was in government.
Ironically, it was the only one of Chanaka’s friends who continued to support the old alliance that made it of that year’s cohort to the Presidency. But the alliance candidate at the time, Marie Louise Rossi, was not the most marketable, and it might have made sense for our group too to have supported the steady alternative, Philip May. He was a very sweet man, the more successful politically of a charming couple who seemed far too innocent for Union politics. His girl friend was Theresa Brasier, who went on to do better than any of our contemporaries in British politics, and became Prime Minister in 2016.
By the middle of 1996 Chanaka was back to producing a play. This meant extended evening drinking at the Lionel Wendt after rehearsals, and after one of these events he went for a long drive, and the much less experienced driver crashed the car. It seems that Chanaka leaned over to try to help, but he could do nothing, and died on impact. The driver escaped unscathed. And when I heard the news I remember Nirmali Hettiarachchi, who has remarkable gifts with regard to human character, telling me, a few months earlier, when Chanaka came together with him to see me at the English Association office, that she had felt bad vibes, and the young man was no good for Chanaka. I have since had complete faith in her instincts, and she has rarely proved mistaken.
Chanaka died on August 1st. The three month almsgiving was held on November 1st at the party office, where he had spent so many happy hours. While we were having lunch, the news arrived that J R Jayewardene had died that morning.
Ceylon Today 8 Oct 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=6927