Asitha Perera, Belihuloya, Bhopal, Bradman Weerakoon, CALD, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Chanaka Amaratunga, Council for Liberal Democracy, FNS, Gwalior, Harim Pieris, Iris Madeira, Kamal Nissanka, Kerala, Khajuraho, Lakmahal, Liberal Party, Muslim Congress, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Ravi Pillai, Rex Baker, Rohan Edrisinha, Sabaragamuwa, Sanath Jayasuriya, Sanchi, Shalini Senanayaka, Suleiman Terrace, Trivandrum, World Cup
After Chanaka’s death I had to take charge of the Liberal Party, for there was no one else left of the intellectual giants Chanaka had gathered around him, or even his close friends, who had formed the core of the party. Asitha, who had been his principal ally when the Council for Liberal Democracy first went into action during the 1982 referendum, had let him down after the 1994 election, and joined the Muslim Congress to ensure he kept the Parliamentary seat of which he had deprived Chanaka. Before that, Rohan Edrisinha, Chanaka’s other great friend from schooldays, who had taken longer to part conclusively from the UNP when JR was in charge, had left the party along with Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu when we decided to support Premadasa in the 1993 Provincial Council elections.
In 1996 I tried to persuade both of them to come back, but by then they were well entrenched in the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which they had set up ironically enough with Bradman Weerakoon, who had been Premadasa’s right hand man. They thought now that they could achieve more through that, and Sara indeed did so in the years that passed, showing himself in the end inclined to move towards a UNP perspective. I was left then with relative newcomers, Harim Pieris who had been Deputy to Chanaka’s Secretary General, and Kamal Nissanka who had joined us as a paid researcher. They had proved reliable enough, but neither of them had the intellectual stature of Chanaka or Sara or Rohan. Shalini Senanayake, who had been employed as a Secretary, also continued to help, though we could no longer afford to keep her on in a paid position. Her sympathies were more with the UNP, for family reasons, rather than Liberalism. Unfortunately Nirgunan, who would have provided intellectual strength, had by now settled down in Singapore, though he continued supportive from afar.
I found the party in debt, for the projects that had funded the administration had long dried up. Indeed it turned out that the most recent one, to produce a manual of Liberalism for South Asia, was nowhere near conclusion, though the money advanced for its production had all been used up. Mrs Delgoda of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which had funded the volume, was desperate that it be finished and, with much cajoling and editing, I was able to oblige within a few months. Fortunately Chanaka’s articles had been in advanced draft form, and provided a thorough base for the volume, and Rohan and Sara eventually produced what they had agreed to do.
Mrs Delgoda also got me to go to India for a workshop on Liberalism that had been promised for a group called the Association of Youth for a Better India. There was no Liberal Party as such in India, and the FNS worked with various interest groups there. Recently it had decided to try to develop interest in formal liberal ideology, and thought this should be introduced by someone from the region, to avoid it being regarded as an alien and irrelevant creed. Chanaka would have been the ideal choice but, after his death, I was the only one she could approach.
I was nervous about the business before I went, and mugged up on the materials she provided from FNS headquarters in Germany, but the exercise proved both easy and pleasant. The group was a delight, ordinary middle class youngsters from Bombay, and I could not help comparing the ease with which they expressed themselves, their fervor in discussion, and the ability to work productively in groups, with the passive approach to learning and intellectual discourse that characterized the products of our own educational system.
The workshop was held up in the Moral Re-Armament Centre at Panchgani, in the hills above Pune. It was a wonderful setting, the rooms simple but most comfortable, the food excellent. I got on very well with the group, which included several Parsees and also the splendidly named Iris Madeira, who knew Rex Baker and had taken part with him in amateur theatricals at the Council in Mumbai.
I came back to find my mother extremely anxious that I return to Lakmahal. The children had gone, to join their father in Australia, and she told me that my sister in law, who was supervising the packing, including some of the Lakmahal furniture, would be leaving soon herself. I was a bit irritated that my mother had decided on parting with some of the nicest bits in Lakmahal without consulting her other children, but she said rather sadly that now they would have no further claims. It had clearly not been an easy time for my mother, and I realized, from the greater care than usual she displayed in celebrating her birthday, that she thought there might not be another. One of her friends told me later that, after my sister-in-law left, my mother had told her joyously, ‘She’s gone, she’s gone.’ Her close friends had noticed that, towards the end, she seemed to go rigid in my sister-in-law’s presence, and I think she regretted having allowed herself to be put upon for so long. But as my father put it sadly, she would have done anything to keep the marriage going, and she thought that, if she refused to keep the children, it might have broken up.
I don’t think my mother realized what a strain it was on me. Previously I think I had been taken for granted, the assumption being that I had a cushy time being still looked after, when well into my forties, by my parents. Certainly life was comfortable, but I would have enjoyed some privacy, which was difficult at Lakmahal, which had always kept open house. My sister, when she came back from America, told me she would have gone mad staying on at home, but she was lucky in that our friends Gaji and Dhami Pathmanathan were going abroad and offered her the use of their flat.
Moving downstairs when I was in my thirties had helped a little, but I have always been a private person and my student days in England had been marvelously free. I don’t suppose, given the Sri Lankan context, that it would have occurred to my parents that I missed having a private life. It was only when I moved to Suleiman Terrace that I think they realized that staying on at home, though convenient, was not what I would have preferred. The fact that my siblings had both been given houses, whereas I was told I could only have one if I married, was an irritant. And though on occasion my father told me I could move to one of the properties he owned or looked after, there was always a more urgent need to satisfy, in terms of the many relations whom he looked after.
But at the end of 1996, with my mother constantly asking when I was coming back, I decided it was time to return home. And just before she left for the operation, my mother put on a dinner for me for a delegation from CALD, where she sparkled as I remembered her doing in my youth, when she was the most wonderful hostess, whether in the grandeur of Lakmahal, or making do in our small flat in Canada.
I was away however as usual for Christmas, and then I had to go away again in early January for a Conference that Meenakshi Mukherjee had organized at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was my first visit to the place, and Meenakshi was a wonderful host, even entertaining a few of us to dinner at her home on the final night, proving a fantastic cook in addition to her many other accomplishments.
I took advantage of this Conference to go on to another in Kerala, a week later, and I spent the interval in visiting some sights I had not seen on previous trips to India. First there was Gwalior, and then Khajuraho, with its exciting erotic carvings, followed by Sanchi which was immeasurably tranquil in comparison.
I realized on that visit what an immense impact Sanath Jayasuriya had had on the sub-continent with his theatrical batting in the World Cup the previous year. Wherever it was found out that I was Sri Lankan, his name was mentioned with approving grins, and the presumed association with him even got me from an admiring railway clerk a ticket on a sleeper from Bhopal to Trivandrum. That was a relief, for the journey took a couple of days, and the journey was not tranquil for there were several pilgrims on board going to a festival in Kerala, and they chanted enthusiastically all the way.
I got back to find a summons for an interview at Belihuloya. It was just a couple of days before my parents left for the operation. I had earlier assumed that my brother would accompany them, but he had said in the end that he could not get away. I did not think then that they wanted anyone else, but my sister told me that they needed someone, and my mother had told her friends that one of us would accompany them. Since my sister could not make it herself, I made arrangements to join them a couple of days before the surgery had been scheduled, and realized that they were relieved.
I was duly told after the interview that I had been selected to the post of Professor of Languages, and was able to tell my parents this at dinner at my sister’s, the night before they left. I think they were pleased, not least because I suspect they both regretted my resignation from Peradeniya sixteen years earlier, though neither had ever indicated disapproval. Now, having gone a long way round, as it were, I had reached the rank I might have hoped for as the pinnacle of an academic career had I stayed on at Peradeniya. Of course Sabaragamuwa was not Peradeniya, but I felt I had made up to them in some way for any disappointment they might have felt.
I joined my parents in Oxford on the morning of February 10th, the day my mother entered the hospital. We had that day together, and the next, in between her various tests. She was told she had to have a triple by-pass, at which her face fell, but she stayed tranquil except just as we were leaving her on the night of the 11th. Her face crumpled then, as it had done when she got into the car at Lakmahal a week earlier.
She barely regained consciousness after the surgery, which she had to undergo twice, for there had been a loose stitch the first time round. Ravi Pillai, his wife said, could not take it and was brooding at home without coming in to the hospital, but I suppose there was nothing he could do. I oscillated between the bedside and my father, who could not cope either, though he returned to hospital and stayed with her on the morning of the 15th, when we knew there was no hope. We were making the difficult decision to withdraw the support systems, when she saved us any sense of guilt by passing away by herself, thoughtful as ever.
Ceylon Today 15 Oct 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=7333