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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

If 2016 saw the end of Lakmahal as it had been known and loved for near 80 years, ‘ a home to so many’ as my cousin Nirmali described it recently, that year had also seen the deaths of many who had been part and parcel of my life, and the life of my parents. In fact the period since my father’s death, at the end of August 2014, had seen the departure of many of those who had been integral to our lives.

In November that year I heard from Anne Ranasinghe that Dr Vimala Navaratnam had died in England, having gone there to look after her daughter during some surgery. She had looked after all of us with enormous dedication over nearly half a century, and had kept me going, along with my cousin Theja, in that last week when I was alone at home with my father as he faded.

Anne was as appreciative of Vimala as we were, stating matter of factly a couple of years earlier that she was still alive only because Vimala had insisted she go to hospital when she had suffered a heart attack. Anne had been determined to stay at home, which she later realized would have meant death. But Vimala, ably assisted by the admirable equally kindly and impeccably professional Dr Sheriffdeen, had got her to hospital. I interviewed Anne shortly after she returned home, and was admitted for I think the first time to her bedroom upstairs, where she held forth admirably for the series called ‘The Past is Another Country’.  This was devised by the brilliant Croatian television producer Daniel Ridicki, who  has now set it up on vimeo, as what he sees as a seminal aspect of Sri Lankan cultural history. The series, which includes interviews with Iranganie Serasinghe and Laki Senanayake, can be seen on http://www.ridicki.net/the_past_is_another_country.html

My aunt Ena refused to be interviewed, which I was sad about, but perhaps she knew she would not have done herself justice. She was fading by then, and in October 2015 she passed away, having memorably told me  the week before, when I had gone up to Aluwihare for her 93rd birthday, that I should not be sad, for we had had such good times. When I spent the night of 31st December with her the previous year, on my way back from electioneering for Maithripala Sirisena in Jaffna, she had told me she was ready to go. I told her this was unthinkable for, citing my grandmother and my father, I told her that our family lasted until they were 93. She was only 92 then, and she asked me whether I thought she had to go on for another year. She died, in fact, a week after her 93rd birthday.Earlier that year my cousin Clara had passed away, in a hospital in England. She had gone there in the sixties, largely to ensure a better future for her children, but two of them had died in rapid succession in the seventies, soon after her husband. But she held on, and was happy I think when her youngest did well, though she insisted on living on her own and not imposing on him after he married. I had stayed with her when I went to England in 1971, a callow youth of 17 en route to Oxford, and I never forgot her kindness.

Towards the end of 2015 another great influence on my life passed away. This was Rex Baker, who had been British Council Representative from 1984 until 1990. He was absolutely the best boss for whom I have worked, efficient, imaginative and deeply sensitive. As his Deputy John Keleher, someone else for whom I loved working, wrote in the note he penned for the Council after Rex died, ‘Rex’s approach to any problem was to sort out the facts; to look at the issue from everybody’s point of view; to try to make sure that nobody gets hurt.  If possible the other person should come away convinced that he’d come up with the solution!  He could spot an individual’s strong areas and he enabled her/him to use them to the advantage of all.  Above all he was always fair and consequently he was held in very high regard by all his staff.’

Unlike others for whom I have worked, who were nervous about my abilities and my intelligence, he gave me my head, and allowed me to embark on many innovative programmes. But he always monitored them and ensured that I worked to a clear agenda that was in accordance with the wider goals of the organization. Since he belonged to the idealistic days of the Council, and had no truck with the Thatcherite philosophy of British profitability, he saw those wider goals as building up Sri Lanka capacity, not perpetuating business for the Council. It was not surprising that he and John, and John’s successor Clive Taylor, left the Council in some disappointment. But it is heartening that some of its personnel still try to work in terms of educational ideals and not just commercial principles.

In 2016 we also lost both Nihal Fernando and his wife Dodo, who had been a friend of my mother in her schooldays. Nihal and Dodo were wild life enthusiasts, and I had spent happy times with them in the parks, in the days when they were not overcrowded. Dodo by that stage came rarely, but I remember a lovely time with them both at Horton Plains, when we managed to sight a leopard early one morning. And Nihal, along with his great friend Shirley Perera, who worked for Ena after he retired prematurely from the Wild Life Department, were great companions on trips to Yala, which both understood intimately.

But they had stopped travelling in the last few years. Ena put it succinctly when she said that Dodo, who was quite healthy, had become a valetudarian and claimed she could do nothing, whereas Nihal, who was really unwell, still tried to be active. But of course he could not travel, and so I had not seen them for some time. And the delightful dinners they would host had ceased, with Dodo’s assumption that she too was an invalid.

They died in rapid succession, making clear the fact that my parents’ generation was passing. That in turn made us now the oldest generation, and I realized that we were on par with my grandmother, when we returned from Canada in 1960 and thought that she was in a sense a period piece, contributing no longer to society.

The final and most moving transition of the year for me was Anne Ranasinghe’s death on December 17th.  Though my mother’s age, and the mother of a very close friend of my sister, we had got very close because of our shared love of literature. I also appreciated her work ethic, and her attention to detail, and she became my great ally when I set up the English Writers’ Cooperative in the eighties.

This had developed from the support the British Council gave to Sri Lankan writing in English during that period. Before I started work there, this had been neglected, even despised by the academic establishment, which claimed that writing in English was done by those who were incapable of writing in Sinhala or Tamil. This may have been true, but such a patronizing attitude meant that little attention was paid to the creative excellence of our English language writers.

I take pride in the fact that I changed all that, not least because I had ungrudging support from my bosses at the Council. Given their status as guardians of English language culture, and my own academic credentials, as the only holder of an Oxbridge doctorate (aided too by the generous support of Yasmine Gooneratne, my predecessor in this respect, sadly settled in Australia by then), the respect and regard we paid through the Council to English language writing by Sri Lankans could not be belittled. With regular launches of books, including the New Lankan Review which I had established to showcase such writing, we managed to develop a sense of worth which gave renewed confidence to the writers.

Rex and John were fully supportive of the EWC, though they also appreciated my point that it should be independent of the Council. We started with just a few members, conditions for membership being stringent, though we also opened our publication, Channels, to new writers too. Initially the editorial board consisted, in addition to myself, of Anne and Maureen Seneviratne and Nirmali Hettiarachchi, but the last gave up in my absence because, as she put it, she could not cope with my old ladies. This was sad because I had laid great store by her input, but I realized she was burdened enough with looking after our language improvement publishing programme during one of my half year periods away, lecturing on the Semester at Sea programme.

So I managed with Anne and Maureen and, when I left the Council and had to spend much time out of Colombo, it was to Anne that I handed over management of the EWC. She did a marvelous job, and kept the magazine going for years, before she in turn handed over to Vijita Fernando. She had increased membership in the interim, and the organization, though different in scope from what I had intended, continues from strength to strength.

Anne had continued active in promoting the work of others, while continuing to write herself. She conducted a column for Ceylon Today, which is the only paper in the country that is serious about literature in English, and she also continued to produce new books, though these were generally collections of earlier work. In August of the year she died, she launched a book that had been commissioned by the German Embassy, and asked me to read some of her poems. She gave me a few that I have loved, and used always in the various anthologies I have edited. It was a lovely occasion, with music which she had begun to introduce at her parties.

But she was weak then, and when she celebrated her 91st birthday on October 2nd, she said in her usual decisive fashion that this would be her last. She was not able to come downstairs, so it was celebrated on her balcony, where she would I gathered sit regularly in the last few years, watching the world go by. But again she had live music, performed in the little room behind, resounding over the guests strung out on the balcony.

Sadly, I was not able to give her, before she died, the latest anthology I have produced, which brings together the best from the many collections I started publishing while I was at the Council. She twitted me about the fact that I did not look at her later work but, as I knew from the readings she allocated to me, she too loved the poems I had used many times before, ‘Atteriya’ and ‘Pelicans’ and the seminal ‘At what dark point’ which says so much about the traumas Nazi Germany went through and which we too have experienced over many years of terrorism.

The book came out a week after she died. It is dedicated to Rex Baker, who let me do so much for Sri Lankan writing in English, and I will launch it at the British Council on March 28th, with a special tribute to Anne.

Ceylon Today 11 March 2017 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=16878