While the world outside Colombo was figuring with increasing importance in my life in the mid-nineties, at home the lights, as Edward Grey described the onset of war in Europe in 1914, were going out one by one. My grandmother died in June 1994, on my father’s birthday, when my mother had arranged to have the British High Commissioner over for dinner. It had been a longstanding obligation, but she had wanted a date when I too was available, which had been difficult to fix. The dinner had of course to be cancelled, and I do not think I attended another formal dinner at Lakmahal until January 1997, just before my mother left for the operation in Oxford from which she did not recover.
I was still attached to Sri Jayewardenepura University in the middle of 1994, having celebrated my 40th birthday in May, with 40 guests. I had found it difficult to fill up the number, which made me realize how out of touch I had got with Colombo over the preceding couple of years. When I resigned from the British Council in 1992, I had celebrated my birthday – and the recurrence of Wesak, in the 19 year cycle of full moons – with a retirement party, which had been a very jolly occasion. After 1994, I did not celebrate a birthday again at Lakmahal, travelling to Oxford for my 50th, after I realized that one’s closest friends are generally those with whom one grows to maturity.
My grandmother had been ailing for a long time, her tenacious hold on life slipping when first she lost her sight, and then when she had to use a wheel-chair. It was odd to see her reduced to helplessness, since for most of my forty years I had thought of her as ruling over Lakmahal with a will of iron. Widowed in 1945, losing all her sons, the last two in rapid succession in 1983 and 1985, she had still maintained her authority, which I fear acted as a curb on my mother. Latterly I had begun to understand why my mother spent so much time at Girl Guide Headquarters, which allowed for the full flowering of her equally vibrant, but much more gentle, personality.
My grandmother’s death, though it left an enormous hollow, should also have been a liberation for my mother. This did not follow, because my brother, who had been in Hong Kong for the last two years with his family, decided to continue there but send his children back to be looked after by my parents. Previously they had looked after his son for years, while he and his wife were pursuing higher qualifications in England. But they had seemed to enjoy this, even taking on responsibility for the boy when, after his parents came back from England, his mother got pregnant again, and found looking after two children difficult.
But that it was a responsibility they could not readily fulfil as age advanced I understood, when I came back once on a Sunday afternoon after a trip to Yala with my sister, to find my mother almost in hysterics because her grandson had not come home after church. She was trying to convince my father, who was enjoying an afternoon nap, that he should go and drive round the church premises, to see if the boy could be traced. I tried to tell her not to worry, that doubtless the boy was hanging around with friends, as all of us had done at that age, without parents worrying overmuch. But she quelled me by saying, with a quaver in her voice ‘Other people’s children….…’ Her relief, when they called the vicar and found the boy had spent the day there, was palpable. Continue reading