Everything that could have gone wrong about our trip to Kandy in April 1981 did go wrong. We were due to travel by night, after an evening drinking at the Art Centre Club, but one of our number failed to turn up, so we had to postpone our departure till the next day. I did not want to go back home after having said I was leaving, so I spent the night at Richard’s, where his mother was quite used to sudden changes in plans. She was really quite an extraordinary character, remaining calm in the midst of all Richard’s various fads and fashions. On a couple of occasions I took her on holidays with us, which meant that Richard backed out, since he hated mixing up his different lives. However, characteristically, he dropped in on both occasions, even roaring up to Wilpattu on his bike for a lightening visit.
Innocence about what was going on in Sri Lanka did not in fact last very long. Though the country had seemed full of hope after the economic reforms introduced by the Jayewardene government in 1977, by 1980 the flip side of the reforms was evident. In July there occurred the General Strike that was dealt with, not so much firmly, as brutally.
That particular episode did not worry me unduly, for it seemed to me that an elected government had every right to try out new policies. If the opposition decided on violent confrontation, government was entitled to respond. The relentless critiques of my uncle Lakshman however, Chairman by then I think of the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to being Bishop of Kurunagala, made me realize that the government’s response was disproportionate. Perhaps as a mark of what still interested me most, what brought home to me most vividly the determination of the government to use violence to crush even mild opposition was the manhandling of Prof Sarachchandra, when he was to deliver a lecture that would have been simply mildly critical of government policies.
Lakshman was more concerned by then about what was going on in the North. Though initially I had thought he was being dramatic in predicting civil war if the government did not moderate its violence, it gradually became clear that Jayewardene’s policies were almost deliberately provocative. I only properly understood the situation however in 1981, when I went to lecture at Jaffna University shortly after government goons had set fire to the Public Library. The bitter anguish of the students who insisted on taking me to see the burnt out shell made me realize the great gulf the government had created in trying to impose its will on the North.
I had nowhere to stay at Peradeniya, and I did not do much to overcome this problem. At first I had stayed in the University Guesthouse, high on the hill above the Arts Faculty, with beautiful views westward, but little in the way of food or even coffee. Ashley Halpe then put me up once or twice, with his usual generosity, but he was in effect camping out himself, for his wife had stayed on in Colombo with the children, after he got himself sent back to Peradeniya with the re-establishment of several universities.
I began lecturing in Peradeniya on January 2nd 1980. Getting up before dawn to catch the train had not been easy, since the 31st of December had been spent at the usual Ponniah party. My last act of the seventies had been to introduce Gowrie Wignarajah to Rohan, having overcome her diffidence about going to a party with a crowd considered irredeemably fast by Colombo High Society. The acquaintance flourished, and Gowrie still accuses me of, or thanks me for, changing her life, for worse or better, depending on her mood. Thankfully, her father seems quite happy with his son-in-law, and the family still flourishes at Mangalagiri, another wonderful old house.