This final post about 1984 has nothing about the Council, but it records the background in which I functioned, which I think contributed to the intensity with which I was able to work. I had a wonderfully supportive family and good friends, who were instrumental in expanding my involvement in politics as I note here while also being totally committed, all of them, to the arts activity which had become my primary function during this period. That New Year’s Eve at Bopitiya however was sadly the last occasion on which we had such festivities outside Lakmahal together with my parents.

The picture is one of the very few I have from those days, of Nigel and Chanaka and Asitha on the beach at Bopitiya, on December 29th 1984.

The end of a productive year

On the Sunday, Chanaka being back from England, he and I, along with Nigel, went to see Hugh Fernando, former Speaker and a Cabinet Member under Dudley Senanayake, who had agreed to be Chairman of the Council for Liberal Democracy. He lived in a capacious house near Nattandiya and was fully involved in the life of the village, which included playing Pontius Pilate in the local Passion Play, as we once found when we needed to see him. On the way back we stopped for lunch at the Blue Lagoon as we had done before and once more enjoyed its Baked Alaska.

The following weekend I went with Chanaka and Nigel and our Danish friend Michael Hjalsted to Manel Abeysekera’s house at Bopitiya which I had taken to see the New Year in. Asitha Perera and his wife Anusha joined us and we had a lovely day drinking and swimming. Both of them left along with Chanaka that evening, Saturday 29th, and my parents then joined us, while the next day Anila and Shanthi Wilson and Sharya and Shamol joined us along with my grandmother and my cousin Theja. That too was a wonderful day, and I still cherish the pictures of Anila and Sharya in the sea, and of Anila taking my grandmother paddling.

The others left that evening but my parents and Anila and Shanthi stayed on with me, and also my nephew Shivantha who was now largely being looked after by my parents. His own parents, my brother Sanjiva and his wife Chitra, were back in Sri Lanka briefly, but they had stayed in Colombo, I think for the birthday of our neighbour Maasiri Dias. But next morning Maasiri turned up with his wife Devika and their children and also Rohan Weerasinghe and his American wife Abby. His mother Christobel Weerasinghe, who adored my father, had long hoped that he would marry Anila but neither he nor she was interested.

Sanjiva and Chitra and some of her family also came for lunch, though they left afterwards for a Colombo New Year celebration. But we were joined then by Sharya and Shamol, and also Manel’s son Harin and another of Anila’s good friends at school, Priyani Tennekoon, whom Harin finally married at the end of the decade. And with them came Richard’s mother Manorani, who was as enthusiastic as the rest of us about the barbecue dinner we had and the fireworks on the beach.

This post has very little about the Council, except for a brief reference to jollities over Christmas as well as continuing work. I dwell here instead on personal elements, including the death of my ayah. Fortunately we heard she was weakening and I was able to go and see her and hold her hand.

That was nearly forty years ago, but we keep contact still with the family, and her niece whom I mention and her husband still come to us at Christmas every year. Last year of course we missed them, but I hope there will be another opportunity, for I owe much to the old lady who looked after me so devotedly for so many years, who contributed to my willingness to come back. I much appreciated the cup of tea she always produced when I needed it, when I was back home to work on my thesis, wondering whether I could manage in a very different environment from Oxford.

The pictures are of Sella in the mid-fifties and then the mid-eighties, and then of Christmas three years ago, with her niece and her husband first with the families that look after me so well, and then in front of the grand crib that Lohan created for Lakmahal, placed on top of the old grand piano under which Sella slept in her last years with us.

A sentimental farewell

The book production programme was of course much later. As 1984 drew to a close I went with my parents on a Sunday, December 19th, to see my old ayah Sella, for her niece with whom she lived now had sent word that she was dying. She had stayed with us for many years even when she could not work, sleeping under a cupboard under the stairs, for she did not want to sleep outside in the room she used, having always been an inside servant as it were. But then she found that difficult when she needed a toilet in the night, so she moved to stay with her niece, whose marriage to one of the boys at home she had arranged. He was a good chap, working now for the postal department, and he and his wife looked after Sella well.

She was unconscious when we got there, but I held her hand and then she started swinging it up and down with what I felt was enthusiasm at my being with her. She had been devoted to me, and my childhood is full of memories of her care, though as I grew older I wanted this less which upset her. But she hung on and was marvellous when I came back, and I sometimes think my decision to return was confirmed by the comforts she provided, turning up as if by magic with tea as I typed, whenever I needed it. I knew then as I held her hand that I would not see her again, and a couple of days later we heard she had died. That

I describe here the beginnings of what I think was the most important work I embarked on while I was at the Council, the production of low cost books intended to develop reading, in particular amongst those who could not afford the books sold at our bookshops.

Rex was a sensitive and thoughtful soul who understood the effect of the appalling pricing policy bookshops engaged in. He and Deputy Representative John Keleher, who understood how important reading was in language learning – something which was and has been beyond the ken of most officials at the Ministry of Education though we did initiate some changes in this regard during this period – gave me the go ahead the moment I suggested that we produce low cost readers, and over the years the initiative developed, with support too from the Canadians, and I think well over 100,000 books were produced by the Council and found takers.

The production of books

The printer Paul as I have noted did a great deal of work for the British Council and it was his services that we used for the first book I produced under its aegis. This was a very simple Selection of English Poetry, which I had thought essential because otherwise students had no access to anything more than individual poems in their textbooks, and not always these because government textbooks sometimes were not ready on time. It consisted of poems that were easy to understand, beginning with the Romantics, though it included examples of other periods which I also thought would be enjoyable.

I had persuaded Rex to finance a booklet since it also made sense to give students other examples of poetry in addition to the texts they studied, and to encourage those who enjoyed poetry to read more widely. Books were now expensive, and the more so given the horrendous mark ups the Booksellers’ Association laid down. And they avoided importing cheaper India books because they preferred to sell a few books at great profit rather than a lot cheaply.

Rex agreed, and was pleased when I also said that we should not give away the books, but rather sell them at cost so they could be reprinted with no greater outlay for the Council. Indeed the first imprint, which we made available at Rs 5 a copy, sold out immediately, and we had to bring out several impressions, which I gradually enlarged so that soon many students were able to possess their own  anthology of English poetry.

There were requests for more, though the first book that followed, a selection of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, produced I think at the request of someone at the Ministry, did not sell so well. This was quite understandable for what had seemed simple language to an older generation was far too difficult for the new generation of schoolchildren. But an Anthology of Sri Lankan poetry in English that Rex agreed to also went down well, and what I termed Stories for Easy Reading, adaptations of familiar stories (including of Joyce’s ‘Eveline’ which was perennially on syllabuses) which I had commissioned from Nirmali Hettarachchi. 

The pictures are of these first four books, and then of subsequent editions of a couple of them, for they had to be reprinted again and again.

After Geraldine and Cathy left I started something new, drama workshops at the Council. Unfortunately I could not continue with these, for Maj Britt Baker did not want her Sundays disturbed. She and Rex lived in the Council premises and this was the only day they had the place to themselves, so her attitude was quite understandable but I was quite touched by how apologetic Rex was about closing the programme down.

I go on after talking about that to describe two restful holidays, followed by some excitement when the printer got worried about the novel I had written about the July 1983 riots. He was too nervous about government reactions to even bring what had been printed into the Council, and I had to mount a rescue operation through the indefatigable Margaret Gooneratne, an English woman who ran the American Centre Library.

But as I mention all worked out well, for I had to look elsewhere and I was lucky enough, on the recommendation of Ian Goonetilleke, former Librarian at Peradeniya University, to find an Indian publisher. Ian had been eased out by the government since he was seen as a dissident, and had started a satirical magazine to which I had contributed, so he was very supportive of my work.

The pictures are of Maj Britt and Ian Goonetilleke. Sadly I can find none of Margarat Gooneratne or Jeanne Pinto.

Drama workshops and my first novel

I started a new initiative in the last week of November, drama workshops at the Council at the weekend conducted by Yolande. But though the first was very successful I had to stop them for Rex said his wife had objected. I was a bit irritated by this but later, when I found how poky was the house on site where they lived, I could understand why she did not want the peace of her Sundays, when she had the entire grounds at her disposal, disturbed. Saturdays were not a problem for the Library remained open, but it seemed best to abandon the project for regular workshops though we did continue to have occasional such events on Saturdays.

The Wednesday after those first workshops I went to Aluwihare for a much needed holiday, along with Nigel, staying on a night after he left when we were joined by Sam Bickersteth and, I think, Anila and Shanthi. Then after three days at the Council I went with the new Bishop of Kurunagala for four lovely nights at The Old Place, doing a great deal of writing though I did have a long walk round the lake one evening with Sam.

The following week I had to collect the proofs of Acts of Faith which I was getting printed on my own, since the printer Paul – who had done work for the British Council and was delighted at the multiplying of work with my programmes – said he thought the content might be frowned upon by government. He was even too nervous to bring back my manuscript, so I had to drive to his press in Kelaniya with Margaret Gooneratne, taking Jeanne Pinto along too, to collect it. This was indeed fortunate for me, for soon afterwards Ian Goonetilleke arranged for it to be published by an Indian publisher he knew called Navrang.

Touring Geraldine McEwan’s Jane Austen show was enormous fun, and social interactions were memorable, including dinner at the Citadel when Richard de Zoysa joined us and stayed talking late into the night.

The tour included Batticaloa, which came into its own since I was determined to get to Tamil areas and Jaffna was now impossible. That involved bats and a cyclone scare about which Geraldine and Cathy would twit me when we met thereafter.

I cannot trace here the lovely pictures I have from our visit to Dambulla, so I simply have pictures of those who hosted Geraldine and Catherine, Richard Burge, my aunt Lakshmi at Kurunagala, and Yolande Abeywira in Colombo. The last two pictures are from those days, but the first is of Burge in his now distinguished incarnations, where one can see a trace of the enormously goodlooking youngster he was then.

Adventures with Jane Austen

We had a party at the Sunflower the evening after Geraldine McEwan’s performance in Negombo. Rex came up for that, and  all the critics and artists from Colombo we had invited to the show. The next morning we went from there to Kandy, with lunch at the Ambepussa Resthouse and a party that evening at the home of Richard Burge, a Commonwealth Scholar I had got to know while at Yala for his research involved study of the buffaloes there. We stayed at the new John Keells Hotel, the Citadel, which had lovely views over the river which Geraldine and Cathy much appreciated. And the next night, after the Kandy performance, Richard de Zoysa joined us for dinner there and stayed talking so late that I had to put him up in my room before he roared off on his motor-bike early next morning.

That day we went on to Batticaloa where I had arranged for something called the Y Men’s Club to organize the performance. We went via Dambulla and had lunch at Polonnaruwa and stayed that night at the Sun and Fun Hotel. Geraldine was entertained and not too nervous about the bats that were at the venue, I think the Town Hall, when we went in to set up, but the performance went off well and the last elements of what had been a sophisticated English speaking class in Batticaloa were enthused by her performance. And afterwards we were given a party at the Peace Corps which the Club had arranged.

There were warnings of a cyclone that night but we decided to stay on, while winds roared from the sea. But we left early and had lunch at Polonnaruwa before getting to Kurunagala where I believe I had arranged for Lakshmi to give them lunch. But that is not recorded, nor where we stayed, though I recall they admired the now fading grandeur of The Old Place.

We went to Colombo next morning and Geraldine performed at the Lionel Wendt that night, after which a few of us had dinner at the recently opened Flower Drum restaurant nearby. The next day there were radio and tv interviews before her last performance after which there was a party at the Art Centre Club.

We also sent them to the Maldives, though I did not accompany them. And they had also decided to stay on for a holiday afterwards, so we continued in touch and I had Cathy at home one day for lunch, and then dinner with them and lunch along with Yolande before they finally left, all of which cemented a friendship which lasted many years.

After the exhibition, which led to my being able in time to publish myself some poems by one of our best writers, Patrick Fernando, I had a break, getting back to the most exciting event of that year, the tour by Geraldine McEwan of a One Woman Jane Austen show.

I think she was the best known artist of all those whom we showcased at the Council during my eight years there, and certainly one of the nicest. She was accompanied by a lovely girl, or rather lady I should say for she was my age though she looked much younger, called Cathy Bailey who was her Stage Manager and a great friend. We palled up instantly and I would see them every time I went to England over the next decade, and they took me to lots of wonderful theatre.

Geraldine McEwan

I was also delighted because the Exhibition was an opportunity to popularize the collection of Patrick Fernando’s poetry that Oxford University Press in Delhi had brought out. He was a wonderful poet who had died just after I came back, and I had done much to draw attention to his excellence. His wife, who had liaised with the press, was pleased that I showcased his work, and later gave me the poems OUP had not used, some of which I used in the New Lankan Review in later years.

That weekend I was at the Old Place, going on the Monday to the convent and the Municipality to check on a venue for Geraldine McEwan. On the following Saturday Sharya got married, to a delightful Indian called Shamol Basu whom she had met when doing postgraduate work the previous year, when indeed I had met them both at Wolfson College. And on Sunday I left for Bangkok, to get a Vietnamese visa to go on to stay with Robert in Hanoi, before joining the SS Universe in Hongkong. But on the way to the airport I dropped in at the Sunflower Hotel in Negombo, which was managed by an old school friend called Barrington, since I had planned to put Geraldine up there.

I was away for over three weeks and then had much to catch up on before picking up Geraldine and her Stage Manage Catherine Bailey on Tuesday November 6th. We got on splendidly from the start, and I took even more pains than usual to give them a good time. And Geraldine’s rendering of scenes from Jane Austen was quite marvellous, and inspired me in the years that followed to devise One-Man shows of Dickens and Kipling which Richard performed brilliantly.

On the 7th we went to Negombo for her first performance, which was not a great success for we had persuaded schools to send students and it was clear the boys of Maris Stella understood very little of what was going on and talked through the show. But Geraldine and Cathy understood and sympathized with our efforts to move out of Colombo, and in fact it could only be uphill all the way after that.

I did much while I was at the Council to give prominence to our writers and also to English books about Sri Lanka. Here I record one of my first innovations which was a great success, an exhibition of books in our Hall, which initially our rapacious book industry opposed. But fortunately one of the principal publishers, Lake House Investments, supported me, unlike its related bookshop, and then even the rascally K V J de Silva jumped on the bandwagon.

It was in relation to this that I realized how our bookshops killed book sales in their thirst to make money, adding on overheads even though publishers gave them massive discounts to cover these.

The situation has not in fact changed much but the world I talk of is now long lost. There are few traces on the internet of the old bookshops, no pictures of the de Silva brothers or Walatara or Charles Subasinghe. I found a recent picture of the Lake House bookshop though that too I believe went recently. But the Taprobane Hotel, initially the Grand Oriental to which name it has reverted, still stands.

Sri Lankan books

On September 22nd Ian performed in our Multi-Purpose Hall after which Rex had us for drinks and then the next evening, Sunday, there was a larger concert at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute followed by a reception at the Council. For both these events I had to ensure the transportation and tuning of pianos, always a nerve-wracking task.

The following weekend I was at Yala and then on the Wednesday that followed we inaugurated a Book Exhibition at the Council at which I wanted to showcase books on Sri Lanka and books by Sri Lankans. We had asked booksellers to participate, but I had a long disquisition by Justin de Silva, who owned the Colombo branch of KVG de Silva and Sons (his brother Newton with whom he did not get on ran the Kandy branch, both having been set up by their father), about how they could not afford to give the Council the very small commission I had suggested for sales.

I did not back down and Justin who ran the Booksellers’ Association said his members would not participate, a view echoed by V L Walatara who ran the Lake House Bookshop. So I thought I would have to rest content with books provided by individual authors, who had generally to pay for their own publications since we had no publishing industry in the country to speak of (and had to give 30% or more to the booksellers who stocked their books on a consignment basis), and otherwise only Charles Subasinghe who ran the user friendly but tiny Taprobane Bookshop.

But then the management of Lake House Investments rang and old me they wanted to get involved. That was the publishing branch and it had split from the Bookshop when the Lake House newspapers were nationalized. They told me they would be delighted to send in stocks of their books, and 10% was nothing since even their own Bookshop charged them 30%. Needless to say, when they took up the whole of one wall, Justin who was monitoring what was happening told me that as a special favour to me he would also participate. Lake House Bookshop was left in the lurch, but I think Newton also participated, if modestly, and the Exhibition was a great success, with Lake House Investments full of gratitude at being given this opportunity to showcase their efforts.

This post describes the visit of Ian Lake, whose company I much enjoyed, and indeed we hosted him once if not twice after this. He was not the greatest of pianists, but we preferred to take what we could so as to maintain a regular programme, and this was welcomed by the Symphony Orchestra which relied on us for artists with whom they could put on concertos, in the days before they found there were plenty of wonderful young Sri Lankans who could also do well as soloists with them.

I have very fond memories of Ian, with whom I spent much time, taking him not only to Kandy to perform but also showing old sites for Rex believed we should entertain our visitors well and Ian obviously appreciate temple architecture and decorations. But I had a shock when checking details about him to prepare this post, for I found that in the nineties he had been convicted of child abuse and had been stopped from teaching at the Royal College of Music. That was in 1995, after I had left the Council, after which I had heard nothing about him, though I did remember him, as when I finally got to the Bellanwila temple.

The pictures are of Ian and Earle de Fonseka, and Galmaduwa and two of Degaldoruwa.

Ian Lake

I had arranged interviews for Ian on Tuesday afternoon and took him to the Art Centre Club after a rehearsal with the Symphony Orchestra. Then next morning we were at the SLBC and Rupavahini and in the evening John Keleher had a party for him. The Symphony Orchestra concert was the next day, followed by drinks at the High Commissioner’s, and then dinner at the house of the Orchestra conductor, Earle de Fonseka.

This was a tradition it seemed, which I was privileged to partake of frequently over the next few years, and it was great fun to mingle with the players, older friends and relations like Pacey Rustomjee and Swarna Gunasekara and the delightful Peace Samarasekera who was President of the Orchestra (memorable for a review some years earlier by the acid critic Elmer de Hahn headlined ‘Peace, be still’); and the younger generation ranging from my school friend Manilal Weerakoon to the children of Ena’s cousin Anula Nikapotha.

The next day I took Ian to Kandy, to stay at the Queen’s. He was a lovely man, interested in art and architecture and in the afternoon we went to Galmaduwa and Degaldoruwa, for the second time in two months though after another visit to Degaldoruwa the following year I do not think I have been back there since. And the day after the concert we went to Lankatilleke and Gadaladeniya on our way back to Colombo. Ian also went without me to the temple at Bellanwila for he said the mystic Ouspensky had written about a Buddha statue there with mesmerizing eyes, a statue I missed out on for years until I finally saw it when I went to the temple when its incumbent, the erudite and open-minded Rev Bellanwila Wimalarathana, died.

I return to my work at the Council, and the interactions and travels it entailed, after  ten posts about my student travels in Europe. Or rather, there were eleven posts, for I wanted to conclude such travels for the period before what I term adult life began, a period that I believe started when I finally settled down to work in Colombo. This was when I joined the Council, for before that I had not spend very long in any position.  

This post covers a range of arts activities, of the different types we engaged in at the Council in those lively days. I begin with arrangements for a drama tour initiated by the London office, and end with the commencement of a music tour which we arranged here for a travelling pianist. In between I described the literary activity which we embarked on, to elucidate and also to popularize writing in English, whether British or Sri Lanka.

The pictures are of Geraldine McEwan and Gwen Herath who helped arrange a venue for her in Negombo, and then of Ranjini Obeysekera and Chitra Fernando two very gracious distinguished academics, sadly by then working abroad.

Drama and Music and Literature

From Kurunagala on Monday September 3rd I went to Negombo to check out a venue for the visit scheduled for November of Geraldine McEwan, with her One Woman show of readings from Jane Austen. We had decided to ask Gwen Herat, wife of a leading Minister of the area and also a devotee of the arts, to help us with arrangements, and I still recall that she would not meet me at the Resthouse which I was familiar with after my visits there for meals when I stayed in Negombo with Robert in 1980. So I had lunch there by myself and met her car elsewhere, whereupon she asked me how long I had been back in Sri Lanka from Oxford. When I told her it was nearly five years she was surprised, because she said I should have known by now that a gentleman did not arrange to meet a lady at a Resthouse.

On Wednesday we had a meeting for the British Scholars Association which Rex had wanted me to set up, not the most fruitful of initiatives since it was taken over by a rather dull group. Then, though I was not well on the Friday, I went in on Saturday for the Literature classes we had decided to start at the Council, with a symposium in the afternoon with Ranjini Obeysekera who had along with Chitra Fernando published an Anthology of English and Sinhala writing from Sri Lanka, the first of its kind I believe.

The following Tuesday I picked up Ian Lake, one of the itinerant musicians who performed for the British Council all over the world, in return for travel costs (minimal since the tour covered other countries which also contributed) and only a modest fee in addition to in country expenses. And we tended to get good value for our money, for there were generally concerts in Colombo and Kandy and a performance with the Symphony Orchestra, plus sometimes short concerts for radio.

I did not see as much of Germany as of southern Europe or France in my student days, but I did not feel I had missed anything. And I suspect I would not have done things different even had I known more for, though I enjoyed the other parts of Germany I saw in later years, I have not felt for anything there the passion I have experienced for countries further south.

My first trip back to Europe after I had settled down in Sri Lanka was however to Germany as I have indicated. And I include it here since it was during what I think of as the last days of my youth, before I fnally found a job that was fulfilling. This means more than ten consecutive posts on this theme, but I thought it best to wrap up European adventures in this first phase of my adult life.

This trip was while I was on compulsory leave from S. Thomas’ College after my roller coaster ride there. Like the other I made during this period, to Indonesia, it was connected with the Institute for Shipboard Education.

Amongst the good friends my parents had made in the early days of their voyages with the ship was Mickey Raynor, with whom I had stayed in Los Angeles during my Greyhound Tour of the United States in 1979. In the spring of 1982 she made her last voyage, falling ill in Colombo so that she could not go on with them and had to fly back to the States. While recuperating she went to a dance with my parents and won a free ticket to Frankfort. Unable to use it herself, she kindly gave it to me for I had resigned from S. Thomas. But since I withdrew my resignation at the request of the Board, and then had to deal with them when they tried to accept it nevertheless, I could not use it till October, by when I realized it would take some time for an inquiry to be held.

Using the ticket was not easy for it was with Condor, who operated charter flights and such complimentary tickets could only be used when seats were available. The agent in Colombo was firm about this but did try to help, and gave me advance notice of a day I could fly, with a good chance of being able to return in a week.

I flew into Frankfurt but had no great desire to stay there. But I lingered till late evening so I could take the last train to Cologne, so as to save on a hotel. In Cologne I still had to wait several hours till the youth hostel opened, which had to be spent in the open, not entirely comfortably for it was October.

But I did get a place at the hostel, and had three delightful days there, though I have no record of what I saw or heard. I think there was opera as well as ballet, and I wrote when I got back to Colombo about a fascinating modern piece I saw called ‘The Green Table’ which was about the older generation squabbling at the negotiation table and driving the young to death.

I think I returned to Frankfurt also on the last train from Cologne, to save on a night’s lodging,  and went straight to the airport. There was a long wait and much tension for the flight seemed to be full, but at the last minute they said they could accommodate one more and I was boarded, in one of the staff seats with the strange belts they wore. But the staff looked after me well and I felt quite triumphant when I got back, having spent at least some of my period of compulsory leave productively.

Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2021
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