but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
Soon after my return from Macedonia we signed the documents which passed on half of Lakmahal to my niece. Although this was the legal position, I think my sister and her family had decided the space would in fact be used by my nephew, who had made it clear that he had very different ideas about what should be done. Earlier I had thought my sister sentimental about its structure, for she had accused me, when I put up two new bathrooms to replace those that had to be demolished, of destroying the structure of our parents’ house. I think nothing of the sort took place, and all the old habitues of the place thought my design had worked out particularly well. But I was glad that my sister, who had at the beginning said she was not sentimental, had evinced some feelings for the place.
I was reminded then of Mrs Wilcox in Howard’s End, and her passion for the house which bore that name. Reading the book in my younger days, I had not understood her feelings, and indeed I suggested in a critique that Forster could not have subscribed to them, because he would have thought attachments to people more important. But being older and wiser now, I realize that attachment to place is also a deeply human quality, because it carries with it too the spirit of the people who have lived their lives in a particular place and in a particular fashion. That understanding is what prompted me, when Lakmahal was 75 years old in 2012, to write about the place and those that had lived there.
But I could not expect my nephew, who had not spent much time in the house, to have similar feelings. That was why I had insisted on there being a legal division if he was to use the house as he wanted. Earlier, when my sister suggested that we use the house jointly, I nearly had apoplexy when he suggested enticingly that I could chill out, as he put it, with him and his friends. Being a sensitive soul, he noticed my horror I think, and changed this to the prospect of introducing me to an academic he said stayed at the little hotel, running which was now his occupation.
That too did not strike me as a reason to give up my independence, and when he added too that he hoped to join up my parents’ old room and the dark room next to it which had been mine as a child, it was necessary to be adamant about a division. I could not question his decision, having indeed suffered myself in the dark room which was also a thoroughfare to the bathroom. But I did not want to have memories of the past intruding and upsetting me when I had to live with his radical adjustments, and it was best to divide conclusively with access to either side being entirely separate.
So on November 23rd we signed the deeds. The night before, I had entertained for the last time in the lounge where I had spent much time. Initially as a child I had read and read on one or other of the long sofas on the three sides of that beautifully situated room, looking out on three sides on luscious green, in front the cassia tree my uncle Tissa had planted, the massive temple flower tree on the left, an elegant ehela tree on the right. Later I had entertained there when back from Oxford, many of the Thomian theatre crowd initially, more memorably Richard de Zoysa or Chanaka Amaratunga on their own, for the long discussions that make up such an important part of one’s youth.
There were fewer of these after I moved downstairs, but I used to enjoy the quiet moments in the lounge with my father when it became his domain after my mother died. And in the two years after he died, I spent more of my life upstairs so the house would be used appreciably if not to the full. I loved then my mornings working at the table he used to use, but I had it looking out on the greenery, whereas he being more sociable had looked into the house, to see the staff at work and the many people who dropped in on him as they arrived at the top of the stairs.
I used to have breakfast there, and would read there of an afternoon though as time passed I did this more in my parents’ room, which had a fan. The lounge had never had one on the ceiling, and the table fan my father had used had collapsed and I did not bother to replace it for the lounge was never too hot for me except sometimes in the afternoons.
And I also entertained there, with my closer friends sometimes bringing food so we could dine there too. Over the two years I think my most frequent visitor was Mohan Bhatkal, an Indian whose parents had met mine way back in 1960, at a seminar in Tokyo. Mohan was their only child, and I think to expose him to the world at large his parents sent him to Ceylon as it then was after his secondary school examinations in 1965. He loved the place and the people, my parents in particular, and he came back practically every year. About a decade back he bought a house in Mt Lavinia but unfortunately his wife did not like Sri Lanka, and refused to return, which meant he was on his own for the week or so he spent here every month. On each of these visits I tried to have him over for drinks and dinner, and we had spent many happy hours in the lounge.
The day before we signed the documents I had asked him for dinner, and I also brought along Nigel Hatch, who had been with me at the meeting of the Board of the University of Technology to which Mahinda Samarasinghe had appointed him. Nigel had been a regular visitor when he was just out of school, in the eighties, and had gone on expeditions with me and Ena. So, though we met less often as time passed, in 2007 I had asked him at the last minute to fill up the table at Lakmahal’s 70th birthday party. My cousin Kshanika, whom I had asked to ensure that 5th Lane was represented, had forgotten the engagement, but Nigel duly obliged.
On November 22nd Nigel and Mohan and I had a most convivial evening, which I had realized would be the last, since my brother-in-law Romesh, who had taken charge of the practicalities for his wife and daughter, had told me he planned to start the building work as soon as possible. But it was a good thing Romesh had taken over, for he was generally easy to deal with, definite about what could and could not be done, and only once did he ignore a commitment his daughter had made, claiming that he was now in charge. But that was on a relatively minor point, and he was helpful where it mattered, getting the dividing walls put up downstairs in time for the Christmas lunch I had decided I would host. He also had swiftly constructed the dividing wall on the side where I needed a slab so that a vehicle could be parked under some sort of shelter, the front porch where I used to keep any car I used belonging now to my niece (becoming almost immediately unusable for they had decided to put up the staircase they needed next to the porch, opening up into the upstairs lounge).
There were lots of last moments over the next month, though there was nothing to regret since this division was obviously in the best interests of both of us, and of the house as a whole since we could each now concentrate on improvements without the awful business of discussion between two people whose views were very different. The problem was compounded in my sister’s case by her having to be conscious of a family behind her who would be the ultimate beneficiaries of whatever was done, and who therefore had she felt to be consulted on all decisions. And they too all had very different ideas, Ravi for instance asking me indignantly why walls were being put up round their property. He hated walls, he said, which I did too, but I could thankfully tell him he had to ask his father and his sister. It was a good job a debate had not arisen when the house was jointly owned, with him and me putting forward a perspective with which my sister disagreed.
There was nothing to regret, but I did feel sad when I worked in the lounge for the last time, when we had dinner there the night before we signed, and when I looked out from there over the trees and the flowers. The cassia tree, which bloomed in May, had kept some flowers for longer than usual, and there was till one there when I looked at it for the last time from my lounge.
Sad too was to give up the large round balcony leading off the rooms which had been occupied when they were children by my mother and my uncle Tissa. The former had been used by my sister, and the latter by my brother, though he continued to sleep in the dark room with me since my mother thought her mother would not want anyone else to sleep in the room of her son who had died young. Finally I had asked, and my grandmother had promptly agreed, and said she wondered why my mother had not suggested this. Later I wondered whether my mother had not liked the idea of her two sons sleeping in the room next to hers, in that strangely possessive way mothers have. Indeed perhaps all women have this, for Ravi told me once that he thought the problems that had arisen between my sister and me were because she had thought she would look after the house and me too after my father died, and my determined independence had upset her. I have no idea whether this explains what happened, but it would be in character.
When I came back from Oxford I had moved into my Uncle Tissa’s room, though in time I was allowed to move downstairs, the endless procession of people visiting Lakmahal necessitating that for at least some privacy. Then, when I got a treadmill, I put it in my mother’s old room, next to the door to the balcony so I could look across at the trees. My father used to find it quite funny to hear his son, who had never taken any exercise previously in his life, panting as the kilometres clocked up.
I would go out on the balcony to cool down after I stepped off the treadmill, and stand where I could see the temple flower tree and the cassia. I had tried to keep the temple flower tree through a rectangular strip, since otherwise my sister got more land when the house was divided down the middle, but she too wanted that area and compensated me instead. By then, thinking of the horrors of chilling out, I was anxious to reach a settlement so we fixed on a rate which I thought generous and which she was happy with. So she should be, for it was only just over half what my brother is asking per perch for the block of land at the back which he had wanted to build on, but which he has now decided to sell. But I have no regrets, for the final beneficiary will be my delightful niece.
Long before the deal was done, the treadmill had broken down, so I used to walk on the balcony, going round in a circle, first one way and then the other, which also allowed views of the ehala tree in the side garden. From April onward last year all three trees had at least one or two flowers, pink and white and yellow. Sometimes, if I got up very early, I would walk in the dark and then thrill to the sunrise.
All that had gone by the time I celebrated Lakmahal’s 80th birthday, on January 18th. But I was able to seat 20 people in the library downstairs, and most had been able to sit before that for drinks in the smaller part of the drawing room, which we had scarcely used previously for the grand piano had been there. I had moved that into the hall, under the stairs, prompting one of my staff to comment that that was in the style of a boutique hotel. That had not been my intention, but the space did look elegant, with the green china set my mother had left for me displayed in the glass cabinet I had had made down in Getamanna. And there was room there for the overflow to sit, though they had to pull out chairs from the library and take them back when we sat down to dinner.
I had those from Lakmahal’s past who had been at the 2007 dinner, including my mother’s schoolfriend Diana Captain who had probably been to the house at the time it was first occupied, way back in 1937. Sadly Mohan was stuck in Bombay. My sister and her family came, and those few good friends whose company I relished, who had visited often in the last couple of years. To fill up Mohan’s place I had the most reliable of my staff who had worked at Lakmahal when it was my office while I was in Parliament. He had been in the army, and told my staff that the place looked wonderful, the highest compliment he could pay being that it was like a mess, the effect I presume of the candlestands I had placed on each table.
Ceylon Today 25 Feb 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=15967