Meeting Richard Murphy
A true postcolonial?
On approach to Colombo airport, as our plane flew over a coral beach
lined with coconut palms, my mother remarked, 'That must be Negombo-do
look!'. A wave of euphoria washed over me, submerging fearful
expectations; and we stepped down on the runway, breathing the hot spicy
air of decay, I wanted-absurdly- to kiss the ground.
Had I done so, it would have burnt my lips. It was old Armistice Day.
My mother was wheeled through customs and immigration by two smiling
dark girls in red saris, as once she had been borne through the jungle,
she told me, in a palanquin on the shoulders of four men.
She was thrilled to see her picture on the front page of the Daily
News under the headline LAST BRITISH MAYOR'S WIFE RETURNS, wrote Richard
Murphy in his autobiography 'The Kick,' on his memorable first visit to
Sri Lanka. (November 11, 1984).
On the occasion of one of Richardâ€™s sentimental journey back to the house
full of art of Prof. Ashley Halpe; hung above the piano is â€˜Familyâ€™, a
painting by Prof. Ashley Halpe.
As the son of the last British Mayor in Sri Lanka, Richard recalled
his vivid memories of an eventful childhood he spent in a colonial
bungalow at Ward Place. I met Richard following the Galle Literary
Richard was nine years old when he arrived in Colombo as son of the
last appointed British Mayor of Colombo and the first Municipal
Commissioner (1932-1937). In 1942, he became the Colonial Secretary of
Bermuda and Governor of the Bahamas.
However, his early memories were not so pleasant, largely because of
a British nanny who was very strict and scaring the children with the
possibilities of being poisoned, getting bitten by mosquitoes or getting
blood poisoned. He had a strong sense of guilt as he was always accused
of being naughty.
The house had a polecat in the roof. His older sister could remember
the eyes of the pole- cat peering through the ventilation grill in her
bedroom and the caravan crossing the polished red concrete floor.
Murphy recalled the torrential rain experienced during the monsoon
'The legs of our bed stood in little bowls of disinfectant to prevent
insects climbing up. A milky way of fire flies entering the room and
swarming around the mosquito net lightening the darkness of the night.
During the South West monsoon that began in May, I loved the drift,
go-go and the clatter of rain, each drop of water striking a different
note, a tin or a bucket or a china bowl on the floor of the veranda.'
From left Prof. Ashley Halpe, Richard Murphy and Ms. Bridget Halpe
in the living room of â€˜Waramaâ€™ (Prof. Ashley Halpeâ€™s residence) near
the Grand piano. Estate woman, an original painting by Stanley
Kirinde hung with the other paintings.
Though the colonial administrators learnt the native tongues such as
Sinhala and Tamil, the colonial administrators did not bother to teach
their offspring about ancient Buddhist culture.
'My father was able to speak both Sinhala and Tamil. We, children
were taught nothing about the resplendent island's ancient Buddhist
culture. And among those who spoke English, as our family believed none
spoke it as well as the Anglo-Irish and Dutch who provided the British
army with her best army officers and civil servants.
Where the English might have laughed at us being Irish, the Irish
resented us being English. England needed us to win her wars through our
courage and rule her colonies with our sense of justice,' remarks Murphy
on the attitude of colonial administrators and the English attitude to
the Irish and the Dutch during the pangs of world wars.
Recalling his meeting with President J.R. Jayewardene, Murphy states,
'The President was living in his wife's old colonial bungalow in Ward
Place, a few gardens away from where we had lived. Inside, we were
ushered from the hall into a small dark room by an elderly man, his
long-serving secretary, who greeted the president every morning by
kneeling down and kissing his feet; and was known to have described him
as a God among men.'
After a few minutes, the President entered, wearing national costume,
a white cotton robe that reached to his sandalled feet. He looked as if
he had not slept during the curfew, dark yellow pouches under foxy eyes.
My mother rose and curtsied, as if he had been a king. When seated
she told him, 'We were barbarians when you had a great civilization at
Anuradhapura,' Jayewardene replied, 'yes, but a long time ago you
Richard Murphyâ€™s legacy to humanity Pix by Ranga Chandrarathne
Multi-faceted literatus Richard merphy sitting near the wood
sculpture (mother and child) by Rasitha Sanjeeva at Prof. Ashley
Halpeâ€™s house in Kandy.
Murphy recalled with much nostalgia his meeting with Prof. Ashley
Halpe which led to a long-term fruitful engagement, inspiring Murphy to
research and to interpret the poems on the Mirror Wall of Sigiriya.
'By good fortune, on my first visit to Sri Lanka I had met Ashley
Halpe, poet, painter and professor of English at the University of Sri
Lanka (Ceylon) at Peradeniya. I have never seen a more beautiful modern
campus, set near the Botanical Gardens in the ever- green valley of the
Ashley had interviewed me on television in Colombo at a Dutch
colonial bungalow that resembled Tilton and had found me the house in
Dangolla, lent me books and told me what others to buy. My mentor in
matters concerning literature, history, customs, politics and problems
of Sri Lanka, Ashley, with his wife , Bridget, a talented pianist , made
me always welcome to join them and their two daughters for a family
'... Ashley's translations of thirty ancient Sinhala poems, scratched
with a stylus on the highly polished plaster of the Mirror Wall at
Sigiriya, gave me my first insight into Sinhala poetry and the idea of
trying my hand at less accurate versions'.
Although Murphy covered the cultural triangle, it was Sigiriya that
held him spell- bound and led to his subsequent research and versions of
his own of the poetry in a book titled 'The Mirror Wall.' He states,
'For me the climax of our tour was the vision of Sigiriya, a great
natural rock rising almost 200 metres out of the jungle, paddy fields
and tanks in the centre of the island: dark reddish brown, glistening in
radiant heat, a gigantic national lingam more than a monument, site of
great water garden of Asia in the fifth century , fortress of a usurper
called Kassapa, who ruled there from a palace on the summit for eighteen
'Kassapa may have chosen the rock to liken himself to the three
legged Hindu god of wealth, reigning on Mount Meru in the Himalayas,
surrounded by hundreds of cloud nymphs.
The diverse lyrics, written by pilgrims on the parapet wall that ran
beside the path of ninety metres between precipitous flights of steps,
address the women in the frescoes as cloud nymphs, wives or concubines
of the king' ... one theory is that the 'golden women with dark blue
eyes like water lilies' were positioned on the rock to inspire the god
of the cloud to discharge semen on the earth as rain.
Truly the frescoes inspired a growth of songs from people who were
not poets, yet whose impromptu poetry has lasted for more than a 1000
He also recalled that his love for Sri Lanka eventually led to the
adoption of two Sri Lankan boys who were orphaned and had life threats
during the period of terror. After a legal battle, Murphy won and
adopted the children. He states, 'In April 1989, I took Darrell and
Sathiya to Ireland, where they were granted citizenship and accepted at
St.Andrew's College, Dublin, from which in due course they passed into
Sathiya eventually obtained a first class honours degree in hotel and
catering management. Darrell moved more swiftly into electronics,
following Arosha at Intel, until he was invited to join a growing
private electronic company.'
Richard's love for the country has not diminished because he keeps
coming back to visit old friends and places even hopes to attend a
second Galle Literary Festival.