The renewal of my involvement with Trinity happened at a very busy time. I was purportedly removed from the Board in September 2013, which was perhaps the last straw as far as those Trinitians concerned with honesty were concerned. We decided then to go to Court, and that month saw a spate of consultations. We worked through Sriyantha Senaratne, an old Trinitian who had a wonderfully laid back law firm housed in Galle Face Courts, a beautifully old fashioned office, like himself. When you went to see him, opera resounded in the background.
We saw several lawyers, but the one who handled my case, and the other more important ones, was Harsha Amerasekera, who in addition to clear analysis reveled in a mischievous sense of humour. The others with us were old Trinitians and had to put up gracefully with references to the primitive nature of their upbringing.
In addition to the legal tangles, I was at this time launching all over the country my collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry, albeit all in English translation, which the National Book Trust of India had published. They had earlier produced a collection of short stories, entitled Bridging Connections, which did a lot for Sri Lankan writing since it was also translated into all India’s national languages. This was necessarily a slow process, but by 2013 the Oriya and Marathi versions had come out, and it was heartening to see the different scripts on the elegantly designed cover.
For the poetry book, which was of course more complicated given the difficulties of identifying quality in translation, I had been helped by Lakshmi de Silva and Prof Chelva Kanaganayakam. Though he was in Toronto, he had kept up with Sri Lankan writing and was a mine of information. Both he and Lakshmi introduced me to other scholars too. I met the wonderfully lively and broadminded Prof Amarakeerthi Liyanage for the first time, and renewed acquaintance with Prof Sandagomi Coperahewa, who had been a little boy when I had been Sub-Warden at S. Thomas’. His father had been my art teacher, a delightful man along with his two fast friends, Arisen Ahubudhu and Mr Jinadasa, the one always in immaculate national dress, Coperahewa though as ardent a nationalist in a pressed suit, and Jinadasa in a bush shirt. The last died young, though Ahubudhu survived until recently and Mr Coperahewa was still going strong when his son helped me with the poetry volume.
For Tamil poetry Chelva introduced me to a delightfully erudite man called Padmanabha Iyer, who lived in London and kept close track of all Tamil writing. With seminal assistance from all these willing experts, I produced what I thought was a pretty comprehensive volume. There were long delays then on the part of the NBT but, to my astonishment, when I was in Delhi in April, my contact there, the imaginative Benny Kurian, gave me a copy of the book. I then presented this to the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in Delhi, when he gave me an audience after I had met him in Chandigarh, at a Conference arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development.
I met Khurshid to talk about the rapidly deteriorating relationship between India and Sri Lanka but, given the tendency of our Foreign Minister to panic if he thought his turf was being stepped on, I thought the book a good pretext on which to hang the visit. This had unexpected consequences, for the extremists in the Tamil diaspora decided the book was part of an Indian plot to destroy Tamil autonomy. Our High Commissioner in Canada arranged a launch there, but the extremists urged that this be boycotted, and used the picture of my presenting Kureishi with the book as evidence that it was an instrument of evil. Fortunately Chelva had no qualms about speaking, and delivered a thoughtful address on translations. I was delighted that the widow of my father’s old friend, the Chavakachcheri MP V Navaratnam, also attended.
She and I had become good friends because my father, having done a million things for a million people, had finally decided that there were some things he was now not up to, and had asked me to help her get her house back. I managed to do this, not least because the Chavakachcheri Divisional Secretary had realized that the people who had taken over the house were perpetrating a fraud when they claimed to be running a children’s home. When I visited the place I found a few lost boys and more young ladies who were supposed to look after them, with whom I suspect the manager, a former policeman with contacts with one of the former militant groups, had his wicked way.
In Colombo the book was launched at the Indian High Commission, along with an exhibition of my photographs which, with some encouragement from Ena who told me I had a good eye, I had decided deserved a wider audience. We also launched the book in other venues, the Indian Cultural Centre in Jaffna, and Peradeniya and Ruhuna universities. I took readers for these events, Ariyawansa Ranaweera who turned out to be a distinguished Civil Servant as well as a superbly whimsical poet, So Pathmathan who had run a Training College, and a few others. Anne Ranasinghe read for me in Colombo, and Jean Arasanayagam and Kamala Wijeratne in Kandy, and several Tamil poets in Jaffna, including one who it seems had edited a propaganda journal for the LTTE. They were all wonderfully civilized, and they got on so well, that the Professor who organized the event at Ruhuna said this was the best way to promote reconciliation, since youngsters readily understood the commonalities of the imagination.
I was also engaged at this time in an ambitious project to record some of our cultural history. This was the brainchild of Daniel Ridicki, a Croatian who had initially come to Sri Lanka to make a short film for one of the seminars the Ministry of Defence had organized. He then decided to make a longer film about reconciliation and interviewed several people to produce a very impressive documentary called ‘Common Differences’. The President it seems had wanted this used, but of course the Foreign Ministry ignored it, doubtless because those who ran the Ministry did not approve of several of those Daniel had interviewed.
I showed the film to audiences of diplomats at what had been my office as Adviser on Reconciliation. When we were getting nowhere, I told the Presidential Secretariat they might as well close the office down, since it made no sense to waste money. They assured me that this was nothing in comparison with what was expended elsewhere, but I did not think I should be party to absurdities. The house was then rented to Tamara, who had been recalled from Geneva, but she let me use it for screenings, and thus she too came to know Daniel.
It was at one of her parties that Daniel heard me talking to Fr. Lionel Pieris, son of Harold Pieris, who had owned Alfred House, the mansion which had given its name to several roads in the area. When I was a child, Harold had sold his front garden, which was a shock, for three houses came up in the block fronting Alfred House Road. Harold had continued however to live in the big house behind, which had to be entered now from the Galle Road. In 1982 I had lunched there with him and Lionel and Lionel’s great friend, Baldwyn Daniel, former S. Thomas’ College Chaplain, who had done his best to help me when the crooks and traditionalists on the Board of Governors were out for my blood. Lionel, who was also radical in his political views, had admired the stand I had taken over the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civil Rights, and had earlier arranged for me to attend a seminar organized by the Christian Conference of Asia in Kuala Lumpur. I had much appreciated this at a time when I was not popular with the Colombo establishment.
Lionel was an idealist and, after his father died, he had sold the house to someone for a very low price on the condition that it be preserved. The moment the sale had gone through, the new owner tore the house down, and built two on the site and sold one, so that in effect he got a house free of charge for himself. Lionel, who had become more radical as time passed, then fell foul of the Anglican establishment when he arranged a ceremony at the Cathedral which he thought multi-religious but which traditionalists saw as idolatrous. Partly I think to relieve the Bishop who was being blamed for having allowed this, he went off to Australia, where Baldwyn had also gone.
But now he was back, having become a monk, and he spent much of his time at what was supposed to be a training centre for rural youth in the Kurunagala Diocese. But he came occasionally to Colombo, and was at Tamara’s party where we reminisced about the old days. Daniel heard us, and declared that this needed to be recorded. So a couple of days later, in the drawing room at Lakmahal, I interviewed Lionel about Alfred House, and his father, and his friendships with characters like Lionel Wendt (after whom Lionel was named) and George Keyt (whose sister Peggy was Lionel’s mother).
We then did several more interviews, including my father and Anne Ranasinghe and Ismeth Raheem and also Tamara herself. She was younger than the others we interviewed, but a mine of information about growing up in Colombo at a time of great social change. Schooled initially at Ladies College, she had been taken to Jaffna by her father who wanted her to reconnect with her roots, but she had found the experience difficult, and come back to Colombo. But then, at the time when the standardization policy made planning impossible for youngsters, she had gone off to Europe on her own, and ended up making her own way through university in Geneva.
In Kandy we interviewed Derrick Nugawela, who had had a fantastic life, having had to make his own way in life after his father died young. Though his uncle Eddie Nugawela, an early Minister of Education, had been supportive, he wanted to stand on his own two feet, so he had become a planter at a time when the occupation was the preserve of the British. Having risen to the highest positions possible in the field, and also become a senior Volunteer Officer, he had problems when one of his men behaved badly during the JVP insurrection, and thought it best to go to Australia. There again he had to make his way from the bottom, though he ended in a senior position in banking, and then moved to Colombo to a branch the bank had set up here. He retired, after a stint on the Board of Investment, to a beautiful house overlooking the Kandy Lake which Geoffrey Bawa had helped him design.
We also interviewed Jean Arasanayagam, who sparkled as usual. Ena refused to be interviewed, but we did see Laki Senanayake at Diyabubula, his exotic retreat in Dambulla. We sat on a terrace, Laki barebodied as aways, overlooking the small lake surrounded by splendid sculptures, including a selection of lively owls.
The collection can be seen on Vimeo, along with several other films made by Daniel. Sadly we have not found the time to add to the series, except recently with a delightful interview with Iranganie Serasinghe, whose remarkable life spans so much social as well as artistic history.
Ceylon Today 09 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=4004