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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

14 JanShortly after the first return to Orissa, in December 2015, we celebrated a family Christmas at Lakmahal for what proved to be the last time. The previous year we had, as had happened for decades, had the 5th Lane cousins, along with a few old friends of my parents, two sisters of my brother-in-law Romesh Bandaranaike, and also Vasantha Senanayake and his mother.

We had it seems said then that this might be for the last time so, when in 2015 we decided to repeat the exercise, we found that the 5th Lane cousins had made other arrangements. I wondered whether this was a boycott of sorts since I had been heavily critical of Ranil during the year, but that this was not the case seemed apparent from the fact that the youngest cousin, Channa, who bore the initials of our grandfather, attended with his elder son.

We had only two tables this time, instead of the usual three (there had been a year or two when we had had to have four), with lots of milk wine and cake before, and then the usual turkey, with my sister’s superb Christmas pudding to follow.

I had hoped then that we could repeat the exercise in 2016, which would have been the 80th Christmas since Lakmahal was occupied. But towards the end of 2015 it became clear that soon my sister and I would have to reach a settlement about the house. It had been left jointly to both of us, and I thought that perhaps my mother had assumed that I would live there during my lifetime, and then my share would pass to the children of my sister.

But that was clearly not an assumption on which we could continue to work. From my perspective, being comparatively without assets that would see me through if I fell ill in old age, I had to keep open the possibility of disposing of my share to see me through. And from my sister’s perspective, it was clearly not fair for her family to have to wait for years to enjoy what was legally half hers.

We had decided when my father died that I would live in the house for a year, and the year had now passed. I had decided by then that I would abide by his wish that I kept on all his servants – which meant feeding them as well, which was why I had told him I could not promise this since I had no idea how things would work out. But I realized I could manage, and in any case it was invaluable for me to have a full household. Though sometimes the house felt empty in the nights, when everyone had left for the staff quarters at the back, I did not feel alone because I knew they were all nearby.

During that year it became clear that my sister and I had very different ideas about both comfort and aesthetics. Early in 2016 then my niece suggested we divide the house, and asked me whether I would prefer the upstairs or the downstairs. But it struck me that it would be more sensible to divide it down the middle, so that each of us had a share of garden, and each had an upstairs with a balcony. This would necessitate building another staircase, but in the end it was agreed that my sister would meet that expense, since I had already met the expenses of the two bathrooms necessitated because two at the back, one upstairs and one downstairs, had to be demolished.

This was because an area at the back, which included these rooms, had been left to my brother, and it made sense to build an alternative so that he could have vacant possession whenever he wanted. This was part of the dividing up of the large property that had begun in the eighties, when my mother’s brother had asked for a share, and been given the front garden. But his grand-daughter, who inherited this, had been incredibly gracious and done nothing with the space during the lifetimes of my parents. After my father died however she had sold it, and in August 2015 that garden had been fenced off.

It took much of 2016 to work out the logistics between my sister and me, but arrangements were finalized when my niece was back for the summer holidays. Then in November my brother-in-law said we should finalize the legal arrangements so the building could start. By then my brother had demolished his half of the staff quarters, and now I looked out, from the tiny balcony that remained at the back of the house, on a bare plot of land.

But to my astonishment, the half that remained now appeared as a beautiful little cottage. Earlier the building had been a long, low set of rooms leading off a corridor, incorporating a kitchen and eight rooms of varying size, two deep for the most part. But now, what had been purely functional took on, when truncated, a character of its own, enhanced to my mind by the fact that the tiles which were taken down were dated 1866.

I decided then that I would not break down what remained, and would put on hold the plan I had had to build something in the block at the back which had been left to me. Initially my mother had wanted that sold and the money given to staff as well as charity, but my father, who lived on in the large house, would have found it impossible to continue there without his garage and room for his staff. And it certainly made more sense in the end to give them a home, rather than small amounts of cash, which would have not provided what they needed.

Partition of the house began at the very end of November, but by Christmas a dividing wall had been built downstairs, so that I was able to entertain guests to Christmas lunch by myself. I could not manage large numbers, but had my father’s friend Mylvaganam, who was now 95, having been born one day before my father. I also had my mother’s principal guide lieutenant, Kaly, together with her husband Hope Todd, who had stayed with us in the sixties when he moved to Colombo to help set up the Tourist Board.

Our Indian friend Mohan Bhatkal, who looked after Myla more assiduously than anyone else, brought him while Hope and Kaly were brought by my cousin Theja and her husband. They had not been asked before to Christmas lunch, since that was the preserve of the cousins on my mother’s side. But I thought I should have them this year because she had been my father’s most frequent visitor, and treated me now with the same affection. She too had lived with us at Lakmahal for years, and had married from there way back in 1985.

By now I was no longer poor, for in March I had sold the land in Getamanna that my father had acquired a few decades back, some of it land that had belonged to the family so he had wanted it back in our possession. But he had kept the land undivided, and dealing with several owners became impossible, especially after my brother too asked for a share and my father persuaded one of my cousins to gift half of his. Then, in addition to the difficulties of dealing with several co-owners, with differing proportions, there was the problem of finding labour, while none of us had the money to invest that was required if the land were to be productive.

So, when a good offer came along, we sold, including the small house I had renovated in an area where I was the sole owner. I had spent many happy weekends there, writing and reading and relishing the jacuzzi I had had installed when I found that the bathroom I had expanded was on two levels. But the couple who kept an eye on the area, having first gone there to supervise the English teaching programme I had started in continuation of my father’s desire to provide some social service, were also ready to move. They too got a good price for their house, which they had built up from the language centre that Anjalendran had sited at the point that commanded the best views. We had gifted this to them when the programme came to a halt, and after some years they found the money to renovate it – which was why, my University Provident Fund coming through at the time, I decided to renovate the old bungalow, which would otherwise have gone to rack and ruin.

I was able to spare time for all these dealings because I was still working only part time at the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission. So I continued to travel too in the first few months of 2016. In February I went to Delhi for what was termed the Cambridge English seminar, where I had been approached about delivering a keynote address even before I took on the Chairmanship of the Commission. That appointment I think made the organizers even happier, so I also had to stand in at the opening session for the Director General of the National Institute of Education, since he did not appear.

But interesting as the seminar was, what I enjoyed more was first the meeting with Kath Noble who had been my Director of Communications at the Peace Secretariat, an Oxford graduate of remarkable acumen who was deeply sympathetic to Sri Lanka; and second the trip I did afterwards to Uttar Pradesh.

In Lucknow, the only major city in India I had missed out on previously, a delightful old taxi driver took me on the first day round almost all the major sites, the old Residency made famous during the Mutiny of 1857 and the lavish imambaras, memorials to various saints. These had unexpected joys too, such as a labyrinth above one, and a stepped well. And there were also a few beautiful tombs, set in peaceful gardens.

The next day the Tourist Office found me an enterprising driver who, after the over the top La Martiniere School, took me to Kanpur to visit the site of the 1857 massacre. It was difficult to find the Anglican church which was put up as a memorial, but once there I spent some time in the ruins of the old residency and at the well in which bodies had been piled up by both sides in turn.

We stayed that night at the UP Tourist Development Corporation Hotel in Jhansi, though we had arrived too late to see anything. Very early next morning we set off to the fabulous city of Orchcha, which my aunt Ena had described to me after she visited it at the conclusion of her batik workshop in Ujjain back in 2006. I had stayed with her there for a few days, marveling at the rapport she had established with the cloth merchants she worked with. But we had also got away for a couple of days to the other small gem in Madhya Pradesh, Mandu, where despite her age she was game to see all the sites.

I lingered long in Orchcha, and found its palaces as magical as she had described them to be. But I was also impressed by its temples, and the splendid mausoleums on the river, from the walls of which boys showed off their diving skills, plunging as I remembered long ago boys doing on the Wellawatte Bridge. And despite lingering to see all that was highlighted in the guidebook, we also found time on the way back to explore Jhansi. The fort had been beautifully restored, and I was also enchanted by the old royal palace which was now a fascinating museum.

Ceylon Today 14 Jan 2017 – https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=13015