From the start it was clear that 2014 would be a bleak year. My father was much weaker than before, and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. We knew that this was a slow process and the doctors said there was no need for any interventions since old age was likely to do for him before the cancer did. But it was sad to see him weakening.
That year he decided to stay most of the time in his room. Previously he would be sitting early in the morning in the lounge, the lovely room at Lakmahal that stuck out of the main house, with windows on three sides looking over the garden with its cassia tree, and to the temple flower tree on the right and the ehela tree on the left. I would join him there for my morning coffee, and often he would comment on how he loved to watch the squirrels running up and down the trees, and along the wires. When the routine changed, and he stayed in his room, I missed him when I came up for my coffee in the mornings. He would emerge later, and we would go straight to breakfast and those moments of tranquility faded into the past like so much else.
We enjoyed the tranquility of the house, and it was noticeable that he was increasingly unhappy when my sister visited with a bustle of activity. She was doing her best to keep the house neat and tidy, but increasingly she was getting Pavlovian about this and building up a myth of an anodyne world which she had to rescue from her messy menfolk. What she now claimed Lakmahal had been was nothing like the reality, given that it had been a thoroughfare for so many, and both my mother and father had engaged in a range of activities all their lives. As my sister complained about papers everywhere, I would remember the piles of Girl Guide documents that littered the surfaces of my old room, next to that of my parents. My mother used to stay awake late at night in those days, chasing as Treasurer of the Guide movement after five cents that was missing as my father would put it. My sister’s own dining table was always also piled with papers, but she seemed to think that her principal function now was to sanitize Lakmahal.
At one stage she decided that the overhangs that protected the windows from the rain were crumbling away, and should be done away with. She had a point, in that once a lump crumbled off, but both my father and I would have been happier to let things be. But she was determined, and we gave in, which led to much hammering as her workmen chipped away, with my father covering his ears in anguish, which she did not seem to notice. I did not worry overmuch either, I have to confess, for I have never much noticed noise, and I was in any case out on many days. But my father obviously found it a strain.One of my sister’s arguments for not cosseting him was that she would not treat him like an invalid, and I could see that that made sense. But when we did with insufficient thought take steps that would have put him in the invalid league, he managed with his usual determination to rescue himself. This happened when my sister suggested providing him with full time care from an agency. She tended to get impatient with our servants, claiming that they took advantage of us. I have no doubt they did this, but equally we took advantage of them, my father for instance thinking nothing of suddenly declaring that there would be two or three more people to lunch.
A couple of years before he died, she decided that the boy who took care of him was no longer suitable. This was Jayantha, whom I had had trained for driving in the early nineties, and who had driven for me before I began to worry about his recklessness, after an accident when Nirmali and I think Paru and Prof Chitra Wickramasuriya were in the car. He had then driven for my father, which was mainly only in Colombo where he did not speed. He proved invaluable in fact in the days when my brother had left his children at Lakmahal and they had to be transported to school and everywhere else. After he had crashed into Mahinda Rajapaksa’s car however, his services had been dispensed with, though my father did later get him a job with one of our neighbours. From there he had graduated to driving for a foreign project, but that had come to an end a few years earlier. Coincidentally this was when we needed someone, and he had resumed service at home.
I think my sister had a point when she declared that it was time he went, and my father was not too upset. But the solution proposed proved disastrous. She got people from an agency that was supposed to provide full time care, having been told by some of our cousins that the agency had served their father well. I did not demur, having failed to think the matter through properly myself. What we failed to register was that our cousins had a father who was virtually an invalid, and did not entertain, as my father did, on a scale that a much younger man would have found difficult.
The first man who came did not mind too much about having to make endless cups of tea, but that was because he was happily helping himself to bottles and bottles of my father’s alcohol. He was probably responsible when Janaki suddenly found an intruder in her room, the bars of the window leading to it from the corridor outside having been forced. She had screamed and he had jumped out, but the police who investigated told us that there were signs outside of self-stimulation. At first, not realizing that an old man who slept in the room next to my father’s could or would have come down, we were wondering if it were the young policeman at the gate. But after we registered that the alcohol was diminishing daily, it was apparent who the culprit was.
He was replaced by a boy who did what was necessary, but my sister decided that he was not very hygienic, and gave him much cleaning to do. So when he went away on leave, he did not come back. His replacement was some sort of nut case, who would describe to me sadly how his previous charge, the patient as he called him, would get up and eat and then sleep, and then eat and then sleep, and then have tea, and then sit quietly until dinner, after which he would promptly go to bed. Obviously my father’s excess energy did not please him, but he might have stayed except that he resented the other staff, and was determined to have the patient dependent totally on himself.
When it became clear that the other staff were there to stay, he went away in high dudgeon. His replacement was mentally defective, and it seemed had never learned to sweep a room. At this stage my father lost patience, and got in touch with his old driver, who had told him that his wife’s nephew Chamara, who had been our boy when my mother died, had left his job. He came then to look after my father, and proved marvelous, deeply caring but able too to tease my father and keep him in good humour. My sister was not pleased at first, and thought I too would not welcome him back, but I had been happy enough for he had always remembered my mother fondly, and I had no doubt about his attachment to the house. He could be a rascal and as 2014 progressed my sister started to claim that he too had outlived his usefulness, but fortunately he stayed on to the end.
To help him we had one of the staff I had taken on for the Reconciliation Secretariat. When I found that it was serving no purpose, I told the Presidential Secretariat that it might as well be closed down. My driver Kithsiri told me that the two office aides would be at a loose end, but I did not think that sympathy meant keeping them on at government expense to do nothing. However when I was told that one was recently married, I asked the Presidential Secretariat to take him on, and in the end he was given permanency. I offered a job at home to the other, Sunil, and he accepted gratefully, and served well enough, though he had nothing like Chamara’s dexterity or charm.
It was Sunil who accompanied us when my father came to my riverside retreat for the New Year. For the last few years he had spent this period with my sister, though recently he had begun to demur, and referred to this as being jailed. But in 2014 she was due to go abroad, so my father declared that he would quite happily stay on at Lakmahal. This was clearly not possible, for as always almost all the staff were going home, and it would have been impossible for Sunil to cope on his own, given that my father was likely to have, and indeed to invite, a host of visitors for the season.
I told my father that I could not stay, because we would be helpless without a driver, and I certainly could not ask Kithsiri to stay away from his family during this period. After much protest, my father agreed to come with me, and was in a foul mood during the drive down. But once he got there, he settled down happily, and was totally charming to everyone.
He relished Vijita’s cooking, and when he was leaving he made a small speech in which he extolled this with a formality I had not known he could command. He had particularly appreciated the fact that on New Year’s Day Kithsiri had invited the Karandana priest for the first meal. The priest much admired him, and had been very grateful that he had come, a couple of years earlier, for the opening of the new Primary School building I had put up in the junior school opposite the temple with some of my decentralized budget. The UNICEF representative had been the chief guest and had also been charmed by my father at the meal Kithsiri gave us before the event.
My father also found Kithsiri’s children as delightful as I did. Lohan the younger still relished fireworks, rockets and sparklers and catherine wheels, and had displays of this outside my father’s door two nights running. He was also keen that my father see the rockets that his elder brother Ashan lit on the other side of Kithsiri’s house, to soar over the river. Again my father made a little speech before he left about both boys, describing the smaller one as a rascal and noting the dignified responsible bearing of the other.
Kithsiri’s extended family and the neighbours all dropped in, all of them having heard of my father and being honoured to meet him. He dispensed money to all the children, and to Lohan too, brushing aside the latter’s remark that he had already got a present with the assertion that he was part of the household. The whole family was deeply upset when we left, for we all knew that he would not be back.
The one complaint he had was the nearby wooden bridge across the river, which rattled when vehicles crossed, as happened all the time. There was a plan, he was told, to replace it with a concrete structure, and as he left he said he would return when that was in place. The bridge was indeed opened a few months later, shortly after he died.
Ceylon Today 27 Sept 2016- http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=6204