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This third account of my 1971 visit to Paris talks about Versailles and then my inclusion in an official delegation. The pictures are not mine, of Rheims cathedral and the Luxembourg and Bourbon palaces, and finally Mr V N Navaratnam, a good friend of my father who was on that delegation to the IPU conference in Paris and enabled me to go on the champagne excursion.

The IPU and exploring outside Paris

After my meanderings in Paris I went, on the Saturday September 4th, to Versailles and wrote later from London that ‘ I rather enjoyed it though I have seen enough by now not to rave over lovely buildings and scenery for another six months at least, which is a pity since I enjoy exultation. The great lake however was unusual and delightful. The fountains unfortunately though are hardly ever on.’

By then the delegation to the IPU meeting, which my father had been supposed to join, had come to Paris. Unfortunately he had not been able to make it but his Deputy Nihal Seneviratne was happy to take me along for some events, and I went one day for the sessions which took place at the Bourbon Palace which was an experience in itself. But I commented that the proceedings were even less dignified than those at our Parliament at home, and I enjoyed much more the party given in the evening by the President of the Senate in the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace, another splendid sight.

I noted that I only had one glass of the champagne that was flowing but confessed that ‘I wasn’t so strong-minded though during the excursion to Champagne on Sunday. At first it seemed as though I wouldn’t make it because invitations had to be personally picked up, but Mr Navaratnam decided to stay on in Paris, solely for my benefit. My conscience pricked, but I accepted his card. After a reception with champagne at Rheims, and the cathedral, we went to a cellar and the owners gave us dinner with 3 kinds of champagne and brandy.’

Mr Navaratnam, of the Federal Party then, was a good friend of my father’s from his university days. I would meet him on and off in the years that followed, including at an IPU meeting in Bonn in 1978, and grew very fond of him. When the LTTE started killing off leaders of what was by then the TULF, he went to Canada where his family was. He was dead by the time the war ended, but his widow came back to Sri Lanka several times and I was able to help her to reclaim the house that the LTTE had taken over for several years. Later I saw her in residence there but her hope of coming back fell through since her children were not keen to return, and she had finally to go back to Canada from where she continues in touch, urging me to come and visit her.

What I did not note in my letter was that I got hopelessly drunk at the dinner in Rheims and had to be helped back to Paris where I spent the night on the floor in Nihal’s room. When he told my father the story, he had remarked that it was one up on him that my first time drunk was on champagne, whereas for him it had been arrack. My father never drank to excess, but he enjoyed an occasional drink and in his last few years I would often have a drink with him of an evening, a memory I continue to cherish.

I had decided the previous week that I should leave France without staying the two weeks originally planned, but we could not get through to my cousin Clara with whom I was to stay initially in London. Mr Samarasinghe told me there was something wrong with the number I had, but it was only after he had got through to my father that he got the correct number and I spoke to Clara. She was quite happy to have me and on the 6th of September I flew to London where she and the family picked me up. It was nearly 100 days since I had left Colombo.

This is the second post about my 1971 visit to Paris. I did not take pictures in those days, so these are from recent days, a 2019 visit when once again I saw the Eiffel Tower from far away, this time lit in the evening too, when I emerged from an opera. I start with the quais of the Seine, now built up of course.

And there there are some pictures of the Louvre, I think all from there though I may have included one or two from the new Quai d’Orsay museum which was not there in 1971 but which I have rejoiced in three times since. These are from 2018. There are two portraits, a 19th century Debussy and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, then two of mediaeval sculpture and two 19th century heroic paintings of classical figures, Aeneas and Oedipus, and finally two South American figurines in a gallery I cannot recall from previous visits.

The horror of Tissa Wijeyeratne

I noted in the last instalment Sarachchandra’s description in a novel of the ambassadorial residence in Paris in the seventies. I think he took over from Tissa Wijeyeratne with whom I was supposed to stay, and one reason for the decline of the place was that Tissa lived a bachelor existence for much of the time, his wife remaining in Sri Lanka. There had been no attempt to decorate the place and I suspect Tissa hardly entertained there.

But I am prejudiced against him, for he basically threw me out of the place after a few days. On that first night he told me I could stay for a while but after that I would have to find a place, but he thought that would be easy because I could shack up with some girl in the university quarter. I cannot believe he thought this possible, for I was just 16 and in Europe alone for the first time, but he wanted me out because he had a lady staying with him.

This was Mrs Murugesu who was there when I arrived, also a friend of my parents, who according to my mother when she heard the tale was more silly than otherwise. But despite getting rid of me when she was due back, Tissa used me the next day to take her to the station for she was going to spend a few days in Lourdes.

I have recorded in a letter home taking her for the train which she missed, so I had to look after her for a bit longer. But I was keen to see places so, as I wrote, I ‘spent the morning walking in a slight drizzle to Etienne du Mont and the Pantheon where Voltaire and Rousseau and Hugo and Zola are buried, got her into the next train and waited till it left – we got on very well and I felt rather sad when she left – and walked back with a visit to Notre Dame along the Seine where I couldn’t resist buying one of the pictures from the book stalls, through the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois de Boulogne. I was horrified at the modern monoliths near the airport, but Paris itself is so beautiful and none of the buildings are vulgar though they are on such a large scale.’

Fortunately, when Tissa threw me out, Mr Samarasinghe kindly put me up in his flat. It was very small so I slept on a sofa in the sitting room, but he and his wife, who was connected to my father, were incredibly kind. But I spent most of the day outside, walking for hours in Paris which was very easy to navigate with a map, and distances were short.

I have no record in my letters of what I saw and when, but I remember going to Notre Dame and the Louvre, which were easy enough to get into in those days when tourists were fewer on the ground. I did not go up the Eiffel Tower, for it seemed inordinately expensive given my very limited budget, and I was content to see it from outside.

We have been in lockdown now for nearly 500 days, and there is no sign of things getting better. I had thought that, after the long extended accounts of life at Oxford, through my letters that I have published, and also the accounts of travels in Sri Lanka in pursuit of Reconciliation, we would all be released to move active pursuits.

But that has not happened so I thought after also having produced a shorter series about travels during lockdown, to continue with accounts of travel experiences on this blog. My more recent travels appear now on my personal Facebook page, two a week, alternating at present between Africa south of the Sahara and the Eastern archipelagos of Asia. Those will I hope, together with earlier accounts of my travels in Latin America, make up a book entitled To the End of the Earth.

For this blog I will go back in time to travels that do not at present seem to me worth collecting together in a less ephemeral form. But I have been fascinated by what happened long ago, when I began trying to piece things together.

I thought of beginning with France, which I have been to often since I first went there in 1971 on my way to Oxford. To be precise I had in fact been there before, for the ship in which I sailed to England as a little boy in 1958 had docked in Marseilles. And I can vaguely recollect going on shore, with two Australian youngster who had befriended us. But all that is lost in the mists of time, whereas my experiences from 1971 now seem fresh in my mind.

The pictures are of a visit to Marseilles much later, in September 2008, and I include a reversion to childhood, when I could not resist getting on a merry-go-round in the town.

Paris in 1971

When I was travelling to England in 1971 to enter Oxford, I stopped in several countries on the way, for the sort of grand tour that youngsters from England had done in Europe a couple of centuries earlier. Unlike them I went to France last of all, tired after eight weeks in other countries. But having rested much of the time in Denmark, I was energetic enough to explore actively again for a few days.

It had been arranged that I stay with our ambassador there, Tissa Wijeyeratne, and when I arrived in Paris on the 26th I was met by a clerk in the Embassy, Mr Samarasinghe, who took me to the Residence in Neuilly. The place is graphically described in Sarachchandra’s novel With the Begging Bowl about his experience as an ambassador. He noted there that ‘The residence of the Ambassador is in the fashionable Neuilly-Sur-Seine area, but it is one of the most disreputable looking buildings in that area. Its roof is on the point of crumbling down, its outer walls are dirty and haven’t been cleaned in the past 10 years since we began to rent out the house, its floors need carpeting and its inner walls and wood work need painting and redoing. I have felt ashamed to invite Ambassadors to my house because of its state of neglect.’

I remain at Getamanna for the last post in this series, for after I returned from there in February there has been no more travel as the Coronavirus crisis deepened, except between Lakmahal and my cottage.

But today would have been my father’s 100th birthday so it is singularly appropriate to show the house where he was born, which he inherited as the youngest son but very rightly gave to the children of his brother who had lived there and looked after the place superbly. And my father was very proud of what he used to call Girlie’s Garden, which his brother’s wife cherished. Whenever I came back from a visit, he would ask, ‘How is Girlie’s Garden?’ for she kept it vibrant with colour.

I have included pictures of his parents which are hung up inside the house, and also a cherished picture of my uncle and aunt who were wonderfully hospitable when I started visiting regularly. This is with the English teaching staff who helped me, on whom they kept a watchful eye, much admiring Jothini and Upali for their dedication, less warm towards Shantha who soon had to go.

And I end, since the end of all exploring is to arrive where we started, with a picture of my father that hangs in my bedroom at Lakmahal. It was taken during his last New Year, which he spent with me at the cottage, and he was delighted when the chief monk of the village temple came for the first meal of the year. He would speak often later on of what he termed that almsgiving, and I shall recall it today in inviting that monk for lunch here, all I can do in these difficult days to mark my father’s birthday.

From the Sabaragamuwa University event at Giriulla I went to the tiny remains of my estate at Madola in Getamanna, for a night in the small cottage beneath the new house where Upali and Jothini now live. And as usual I went next morning for breakfast to my father’s family home, where until 1918 my Aunt Girlie continued to live on her own, refusing to move to her children in Colombo for she loved her house and its garden. Jinadasa, who looked after her along with a retinue of ladies, still cares for the house and produces breakfast, and this time I had the added bonus of my cousin Roshini turning up to show me the rebuilding they plan.

The last two pictures are of the house, but I begin with sunset looking down the hill from the cottage, and then early morning coffee on the verandah where Bloomer joins me, as he used to do in the old house down the hill on the other side, before it was sold. Then there are the lime trees Upali planted for me on the hill below the cottage, now beginning to flourish. There is another view then from the road I had cut to the edge of the property, and then another from the top of the house, before I left after lunch.

A month after the celebration of Lakmahal’s birthday I travelled away from my two homes for the last time over this coronavirus period. This was for the inauguration of the Sabaragamuwa University MA programme in English and Education. It could not happen at the Medical Faculty building in Ratnapura as originally planned because of the need for distancing, so was held in a hotel near Kuruvita.

That was a pleasant place, by a lake, and the large hall where the event was held opened onto the lake. Almost all the students who had registered turned up, and I was delighted to see amongst them Palitha, who had worked very hard, at university and after. When I last saw him, a quarter of a century ago, he had developed a thriving tutory in Bandarawela, and when the course started he was immensely helpful to others on it who had not had any training it seemed in writing English correctly. He stands in between me and another student of those days, Hapugoda, who is now on the staff and got his doctorate a year earlier.

Apart from the university staff and myself Dilki Wettewa of Kelaniya also spoke, one of the brightest and most accomplished of the younger generation there who have transformed the place after the solid conservatism of the last century. I was proud too of my students, Rohan Abeywickrama who runs the programme, and Manoj Ariyaratne who was a student at USJP whom I took to Sabaragamuwa, a First Class in Sinhala with English as his subsidiary, now the leading figure in Translation Studies in Sri Lanka, developed far too late though I made a stab at it back in the nineties.

Less than a month after Christmas there was another little gathering at Lakmahal. This was to celebrate its birthday, a custom of my grandmother who would cut a cake on the date, January 18th, year after year. The custom fell into abeyance as she grew older, for my mother was not at all sentimental, a claim reiterated by my sister, though she did attend the events I hosted after the year the house reached 70, in 2007.

Amongst the guests this time was Nigel Hatch who has been in and out of the house for forty years, and had been at the 70th anniversary dinner. I have here too a picture of the very quiet dinner I had at home on December 31st, for him and his wife and Jeevan, whom I have known for as long.

Fortunately my sister’s daughter, who now owns the other half of Lakmahal, is more sentimental than her mother, and I had two cakes, so she could cut one. Greed may perhaps have played a part in this decision, and also the desire to let Toby have a piece since he could not have any of the chocolate cake.

We ate in the library but we had sat out in the garden earlier, so my guests could view the swing which had been my birthday present to the house, placed where I could see much of the garden with my morning coffee.

I combined the birthday party with a launch for a couple of the books that had come out at the end of December, my book about times with Ena de Silva, and the collection of memoirs. At the last moment I had decided to include there a section on what I called Lakmahal’s inner circle, the last of whom had died the previous year. Of them Diana Captain and Hope Todd had been at the dinner I had for the 80th birthday of the house, in 2017, just after it had been divided. But I was able to fit in three tables in the library, the last occasion on which so many who have loved the house could come together there, Diana from the time it was built.

The next set of pictures in this series is not about travel, but a record of a public event, such as now seems unthinkable. It was Christmas lunch at home, for just 11 people. But I was glad that my sister and her family were there, for she had not been at Lakmahal for this after 2015, the last time we celebrated at the large table in the long dining room at the front of the house.

She used to have her own party in the evening, but this was impossible last year and since I did not want to break the tradition of lunch at Lakmahal she agreed to come to me, rather than my going to her. Her sister-in-law who had been to that last big lunch came too, and our Indian friend Mohan Bhatkal and Nirmali Hettiarachchi, who have been fixtures, as the latter’s gorgeous Christmas pudding has been. This year her daughter Shyam joined us, as did Tamara Kunanayakam who had stayed with me for a few months while her own place was being treated for damp during lockdown.

I did the turkey myself, the first time since 1977 in my flat in Norham Gardens while I was at Oxford, for in the last few years it has been duck. And I had a lovely time experimenting with a beetroot based gravy, while Anila produced the traditional stuffing which I have done without in the last few years.

My staff, who were deeply upset when Anila suggested that it might be too much trouble for them, back in 2016 – Shantha declaring that he had helped with the event for 30 years – had a splendid time doing up the Christmas tree which I had this year next to the piano extending up over the stairs.

As happened the previous year they also decorated the croton outside the little drawing room which I all I have left of the once grand room divided by columns. Lohan brought me an even bigger crib than he had given me last year, which replaced that one on the piano just before lunch, and is still there along with the Christmas tree. And on the dead temple flower tree outside there was a lovely spray of orchids which Kavi had gifted me when we developed the garden.

I had not been to Sabaragamuwa University for many years before my visit there last December. And even on some earlier occasions, I had been only to the new Faculty building.

So after the ceremony was over last year, I decided to drive through the original campus, to look at the house I had stayed in for a decade, the office where I had worked as Dean for about half that time in two stints, and other familiar buildings.

Here is the house in which I had a room, the entrance and then a side view which shows the canteen behind from which my coffee was supplied through the window every morning. Then my office building, shared with the Management Faculty, the whole now used by the new Faculty of Graduate studies.

Then there are access roads to the classrooms and the main road with the Vice-Chancellor’s office, still in use, on the left as you go out, and the swimming pool on the left, which the Japanese had built when this was the camp they used to build the Samanalawewa Dam. And finally the administration building where I saw my old Secretary Subodha, now Secretary to the Registrar, who had taken her the moment I stopped being Dean.

In October 2020 the shutters came down again, but I did get out once more before the year ended, otherwise content to move between Lakmahal and the cottage.

That excursion was to Belihuloya, for one of my former students Rohan Abeywickrema was now back from Australia with his doctorate and in charge of much administration, which he had also been good at in addition to his academic abilities. I had initially thought this invitation was with regard to the MA in English and Education which he was reviving, but it was for a forum to present student research.

I thought I should go anyway, and welcomed the idea of a night too at the Belihuloya Resthouse which I much loved. The day we got there I had some of my students for dinner, though they insisted on paying much of the cost. Apart from Rohan and Mahesh Hapugoda and Manoj Ariyaratne, all of them now with doctorates, the new Dean of the Faculty Sampath Fernando came as did Abeyweera who was now a Dean at the Uva Wellassa University.

I was up to see the dawn next morning, over my coffee on the little balcony over the river. KIthsiri joined me when the sun came up, and I was tempted to take a dip but there was no time. We had to have a hasty breakfast and then head off to the event, where I met the new Vice-Chancellor for the first time.

Rajiva Wijesinha


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