Only two people are now left at Lakmahal of those who filled the house 50 years ago. First of all, in those days, there was my grandmother, who still dominated the place at the age of 65, just a bit older than I am now. My parents and my brother and sister were also upstairs, each with their own rooms, though I still had to share a bedroom with my brother, the dark room which needed the lights on at any time of the day if one wanted to read. It had been my uncle Lakshman’s in the thirties and forties, and I have suggested elsewhere that his deep sense of social justice, so magnificently asserted when he was Bishop of Kurunagala, might have had something to do with the deprivation he suffered from in comparison with everyone else in the house in his youth.
Downstairs we had an old friend of the family who had come to stay when he was seconded to work for the newly established Tourist Board, a factor I recall now that I am charged also with developing better training mechanisms for the hospitality industry – including competence in English, which has been so woefully neglected in the curricula in existence now. In addition my great-uncle and his daughter came down once a fortnight from Kurunagala, a high point for me since they brought cakes aplenty and I was allowed to share a beer with the old man on weekday mornings.
But filling the house too were the servants, more than half a dozen of them. Not all worked at home, since the custom had begun, many years previously, of allowing the boys who had been particularly good at their work to stay on when they graduated to jobs outside. The most senior of them, Piyadasa, had gone away by then to our Embassy in Moscow, where years later he arranged for me to travel by train to Georgia, and its capital which I still think of as Tiflis, when I stopped over on my way back to Oxford.
But there were still two others, both working at Lake House, courtesy of my mother’s oldest brother who still ran the place then, before his brother-in-law grew up and was able to take up his inheritance. And then, actually on the payroll as it were, were a cook and a gardener and a boy to look after the downstairs, and my old ayah Sella, to look after the upstairs. The older lady, who had looked after my brother and sister, had gone home by then, though she and her family continued to visit at intervals.
They are all gone now, except the boy who had come to work at Lakmahal 60 years ago, who stayed on while he worked at Lake House for nearly 40 years, and has remained with us for a decade and a half since. Last year he went away to recuperate at home after an operation that was done in Kandy since the queues in Colombo were too long, and I was deeply saddened by the break with that link from the past. But he came back last month, and seems happy to stay on, still insisting on sweeping the garden though I have told him he should take things easy.
One reason he was so keen to come back is that his grandson is with us, going to school in Colombo since his mother works here. She is at Lake House, having been offered a position in that establishment when he retired, which I gather is a tradition there. That was one reason Gunapala, as I called him in the novel I wrote about the house way back in 1995, stayed on. He asked that she be allowed to stay at Lakmahal, and my father, not willing to take on responsibility for a young lady (this was just a couple of years after my mother had died), told him that he was quite happy to put her up, but he should stay too to look after her. She had recently got married but her husband obviously could not come to Colombo, so she was a weekend boarder as it were.
A couple of years later she had a child, and three years after that she asked if her little boy could come to Colombo when he started schooling. Pre-schooling was not very good in the village, and both my father and I thought good education was something that had to be promoted. My father typically went further, and found an excellent Montessori and then had the child admitted to the nursery at Ladies College, from where he went on to Royal.
Before my father died, he told me I should keep on all his staff. I told him I could not promise since I was not sure I would be able to afford it, but I am very glad that I have seen it as an obligation about which there can be no question. My sister, out of concern for me I think because she worried about my finances, told me that I should at least ask the two youngsters who stayed at home – one of them Gunapala’s son – to find another lodging place, but they are immensely helpful when I need them (the son is a whiz with computers, and rescued the pictures in my IPad which was destroyed by the spray at Victoria Falls).
And they help to sustain the sense of life that has been such a vital feature of Lakmahal. This struck me vividly when I saw the grandson playing with his dog, taken possession of when a stray took shelter in a drain when about to deliver a litter. Fearing the predatory intentions of other staff and visitors – my friend Vasantha Senanayake’s security detail took four of the pups I think – the little boy hid the best of the bunch in his room, from which he has emerged with flying colours to take possession of the garden.
Watching the two together, I was reminded of my father, fifty years ago, commenting on the bond between a boy and his dog, when I first acquired one. It was a long battle to be allowed to keep a dog in the house, because my grandmother was not fond of animals, and thought they should live with the gardener, tied up outside his room. My first dog then was an outside one, but despite the distant relationship we had, he seemed to consider me his owner and I have no difficulty, nearly 50 years since he died, in seeing him cocking up his ears when I got back from school.
But my father was I think referring to the first dog allowed upstairs, when my parents got me another on my 10th birthday. He did not live long, but was a wonderful companion during the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence – which begins at 10 as Hiranthi Wijemanne, an expert on the subject from her days at UNICEF, reminded us last week at the National Education Commission. I still recall clutching the poor beast and crying, before I finally managed to persuade my mother and my grandmother that I should have a room of my own, so I could read late into the night without the light being unceremoniously switched off – or suddenly put on when I had just drifted off to sleep. Trivialities, one should acknowledge, given the deprivations suffered by so many, but emotions are based on relativities, and a sense of injustice can be galling.
My father was a great ally in such matters, though he could not act since he was always conscious that the house belonged to his mother-in-law, and any negotiations had to be between her and her daughter. But he was sensitive, and thirty years later, when I faced a similar problem, he found me a flat to which to move, so that I could have a place of my own, for the first time since those halcyon days at Oxford.
But in the sixties I had to create my own salvation, and I found it in frequent trips outside Colombo. Kurunagala, to stay with my great uncle and his daughter, was a regular refuge. And I would stay too in Kandy, with W J Fernando, who was Government Agent there, in two spells, having been transferred out initially when the Kandyan aristocracy resented his less than aristocratic background. I was sad when I visited the Lodge a few years back to find the annexe where I used to stay turned into an office, though I suppose it made sense because in those days the living quarters upstairs were hardly used. I stayed there only on the occasion when I coincided with the Sarachchandras, great friends of W J, and also Shirley Corea, who was one of the greatest gentlemen to occupy the post of Speaker.
But it was Lakmahal that was home, and the dogs were essential to keep me going. So it has been wonderful to see a boy playing with his dog in the garden 50 years later, just as it is fun to see him early morning on the bicycle his mother gifted him last Christmas. I recalled then the first bicycle I had, shared with my sister, a legacy of an old Guide friend of my mother. I had not thought of Iris Blacker for years, so it was good to recall her too, and the varied friendships of that age of innocence.
Ceylon Today 21 June 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160321CT20160630.php?id=2656