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After the disappointing 19th amendment I had just over a week in Sri Lanka before leaving on what was to be the most exciting trip of this period. There was much to do however, because I had to go down to Getamanna regarding the survey of the land I hoped to sell there, and I was also engaged in constructing a couple of new bathrooms at Lakmahal. These last were necessitated by the fact that the bathrooms attached to the two biggest bedrooms were on land that now belonged to my brother.
But the workmen I used, who had put up the additions to my cottage, were entirely reliable. I usually worked through Kithsiri, who had found them in the first place, but since I was going to Uzbekistan, I took him along as well, and found when I got back that the work had proceeded without any problems.
I had been helped with regard to Uzbekistan by Yves Giovannoni, who had headed the ICRC office in Colombo, having served previously in that country. My friends at the Embassy in Delhi got me the visa but this was facilitated by his contact Ravil who also arranged a tour that covered everything I wished to see.
After a night in Delhi, we got to Tashkent on the 8th of May, and were met by Ravil who was as nice as Yves had indicated. I had booked a hotel which was near enough to the Russian cathedral for us to walk there that first evening. I then had my first taste of the extraordinary hospitability of the Uzbeks, for as we were walking back a boy spoke to us and then offered to drive us back to the hotel. And that evening also introduced us to Uzbek food, and what was termed Bukhara bread, which was both crisp and luscious. Read the rest of this entry »
There was much to do in the few days following my father’s death, but we had no complications, because both my mother and he had been very clear when they wrote their wills. My father had not wanted to write one, on the grounds that he had nothing in his name, but I had persuaded him that he had to because unexpected possessions could turn up. And in fact he certainly possessed a car.
He said he would leave that to me, but I thought that would not be correct given that I had persuaded him to write a will. He then wanted to leave it to Anila’s son, which seemed an eminently sensible idea, but she was adamant about not having a benefit for her family over and above what the children of my brother had. So in the end my father decided to give the car to Chamara who had looked after him devotedly over the last couple of years.
Anila, hyper-conscious of equity, suggested he leave it to both those who looked after him, but this was silly because Sunil, whom I had taken on when the Reconciliation Office closed, though a good worker, was not the old friend Chamara was regarded as by my father. I thought it best then not to consult Anila about the will in general, in particular the clause about a residual legatee, which was essential since one never knew what might pop up in my father’s name. Again he wanted to nominate me, but I insisted on Anila and he did not demur. This proved just as well, because there turned out to be a motorcycle he had bought for his last driver, Jayantha, and also some shares in my mother’s name.
The main house had been left by my mother to my sister and me jointly, on the grounds that we would not quarrel. This did not prove to be an accurate prediction, since we had very different tastes, but it was certainly true that no one could have doubted Anila’s financial integrity and sense of equity, and I hope she would say the same about me. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
With Lakmahal slowly folding up as it were, and the country in decline, my principal solace in 2014 was travel. Asia and Europe I knew well, and I had been to enough of South America to feel I had seen enough of it for the moment. The Middle East too I had seen a fair amount of, Iran in 2008 and Syria and 2009, and then the Lebanon in 2012, Sidon and Tyre and Baalbek in the depths of winter.
Africa seemed to me the great hole in my travels, and I thought this was the year I should see more of that continent. I had been to Morocco and Egypt in my travels round the world on the Semester at Sea programme, and I had been back to Morocco for a Liberal International event, going on that occasion down towards the desert. And I had had a blissful few days in Luxor, redolent with the sensuality described in ostensibly staid accounts of the adventures of English ladies there in the nineteenth century. I had been also to Aswan on that trip (though there was a sandstorm that prevented me getting to Abu Simbel), and marveled at the reach of Hellenic civilization, at the exquisite temples on the banks of the Nile. It was also exciting to see the Aswan Dam, which had been an iconic construction in my youth, along with the records of British scientific observation on Aswan Island.
But Black Africa I had not seen at all, except for a few days in Senegal in 2003, again for a meeting of Liberal International. I had been struck then by the beauty of its people and the splendor of its coast, neither of which had I associated previously with Africa. But I had not stayed long enough to see much, and so a determined effort seemed in order in 2014 with little else to do. Fortunately there were excellent officers at our High Commission in Delhi and the High Commissioners in turn, Prasad Kariyawasam and the erudite Sudharshan Seneviratne and more recently Esala Weerakoon, allowed their remarkably efficient consular officer to get me the necessary visas.
On these journeys I took Kithsiri, because I was slightly worried about the difficulties of internal travel, and indeed the hotels, since I neither wanted to, nor could afford to, stay in expensive ones. He had been a great travelling companion before, in places about which I had not felt entirely at ease, Iran and Syria and Lebanon, and then Tunisia the year before. Though much younger, he was not quite as energetic as I was, and sometimes sat in the shade when I explored the more interesting backwaters. But in all fairness I was sometimes too concerned to see everything the guidebooks mentioned, and I could see his point in feeling that one set of foundations of houses in an archaeological complex was much like another. Read the rest of this entry »
It was towards the end of 2012 that I began to feel that my shelf life was in a sense over. After 20 years of working for one or other government organization, there was no more that I would be able to do in terms of public service. It seemed then that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government would go on for the foreseeable future, but after what I felt was effective service, ever since he had unexpectedly asked me to head the Peace Secretariat, in 2007, it was clear that I was no longer wanted.
I should perhaps have sensed this in 2010 when I was not made a Minister. But I had after all been put into Parliament, which I thought then meant something. Though he had not kept the Peace Secretariat going, to work in Reconciliation as I had suggested, I thought that was the result of different persons with greater influence in government having other ideas. But then he had appointed me as his Adviser in Reconciliation and, after the emerging threat became clear, with the publication of the Darusman Report, he had put me on the team to negotiate with the TNA.
He had also asked his Secretary to put me on the Committee to implement the interim recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee. But Lalith Weeratunge had been persuaded by Mohan Pieris not to make the appointment. But Lalith did fall in with my suggestion that I monitor the work of that Committee, and this was duly put into my terms of Reference as Adviser on Reconciliation (which finally arrived in the middle of 2011, Lalith having managed to twice lose the terms of reference I had previously drafted, when the appointment was made earlier in the year).
All that should have made me realize the stage was darkening, but Mohan Pieris, with consummate hypocrisy, did feed me crumbs from his table, to indicate that he was making some progress with regard to what he saw as the important recommendations of the LLRC. The number of those in detention, which had come down from over 4000 to 2000 during the period when, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I chaired the relevant committee, had been reduced to quarter that figure eighteen months later.
And the President still seemed to want my services, for in September 2011 he asked me to go to Geneva. This was when the Americans, through the Canadians, first sought to bring a resolution against us at the Human Rights Council. I refused, and then refused again in March, though I finally agreed when he asked me a second time on that occasion. But the chaos I found in Geneva, where our Permanent Representative, the potentially very effective Tamara Kunanayagam, had been sidelined by the enormous circus taken to the Council by those advising the President on strategy, made me realize nothing could be achieved there. Read the rest of this entry »
The last letter I got from the former Chaplain of my College reverberates still in my mind. He was already old when I went up as an undergraduate, and no longer Chaplain, though he continued as a Fellow in History. Oddly enough he had been a sort of spiritual adviser to my uncle, Lakshman Wickremesinghe, when he had been reading for a Master’s degree at Keble 20 years earlier. This was in Political Science, in which he had excelled at Peradeniya, getting the best first ever in the subject, Dayan Jayatilleka coming near but not quite rivalling him thirty years later. But Lakshman gave up political science and, perhaps because of the influence of Tom Parker, decided to become a priest, and went on to Theological College at Ely in Cambridge. His understanding of politics and his commitment however never left him, which is why he was seen as a Red Bishop and wrote, when his mother exulted at the UNP victory in 1977, that his party had lost.
Tom had no College position when Lakshman was a student, for he was considered too High Church. But Univ later gave him a home, where he was able to deliver the most erudite sermons. ‘You will all remember’ he began on one memorable occasion, ‘the controversies associated with the question of the double procession of the Holy Ghost’. Fortunately he had handed over by then to a younger man, who was more in tune with the times, and became a great friend as well as a mentor.
Tom came from a distinguished family of Butchers and, while still Chaplain, he became Master of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, one of those strange trade guilds that still exist in Britain, and hold elaborate ceremonies in the Guildhall. As a special mark of favour, he took one of his pupils to dine there when he presided. This was Ravi Dayal, whom I met in the eighties when he headed Oxford University Press in Delhi, and I was trying to get permission to republish some of the later poems of Patrick Fernando in one of the early collections I brought out while at the British Council. This was before some Thatcherite groupie in London declared that it was not the business of the Council in Colombo to take bread out of the mouths of British publishers.
Ravi was a delightful man, and we got on well, not only I think because of the Univ connection. He regaled me with the tale of the dinner which consisted entirely of red meat, notably beef, which as a orthodox Hindu he could not touch. Tom, unworldly to a fault, had no idea of the solecism he had committed. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »