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Sunday, 29 January 2012

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75 years of social change and political flux

I am most grateful to the British Council and its Director and his staff for hosting this event, to coincide with the planned expansion of its plant, in fulfillment I hope of increasing and increasingly productive activity in Sri Lanka. I am thankful too to Rex Baker, who was an extraordinarily inspiring person for whom to work.

Let me remember too today my many colleagues at the Council in those youthful days, John Keleher and Clive Taylor and Ranmali Pathirana in particular from our very eclectic unit, and Jean Bartlett and Savanthi Gurusinghe, who are not mentioned in this book, but who were the solid foundation of efficiency on which we all built.

But this book, and therefore what I say today, is not so much about people, but about place. I remember years ago reading Forster's account of Mrs Wilcox and her devotion to Howard's End, and thinking that he could not possibly endorse her view that people were much more important than places. Now, older and wiser, I realise that people are also a function of place, and indeed of time, and one needs to appreciate all those dimensions in order to understand how people and societies interact.

If the book I am publishing today has an inspiration, it was Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, which I thought brought that marvelous city alive in its less familiar dimensions, through an autobiographical account of growing up there.

I am aware that the comparison is perhaps presumptuous. Istanbul I is an epic in itself, Colombo not even a simple lyric, and the society Pamuk explores is vibrantly diverse, whereas I deal with sleepy backwaters.

Homage

In that respect I also pay homage to another master of the nexus between place and people, V S Naipaul, who opens 'The Enigma of Arrival' with a chapter called 'Jack's Garden' that encapsulates social developments in a society that seems static, which you suddenly realize has experienced fundamental changes.

Colombo, I should note, moved swiftly from the self-indulgent passivity of the sixties, through the stirring social changes of the following decade, to violence and terror in the eighties.

In this book I have gone back even further, to the world of my grandparents and then their children, who contributed in their very different ways to the new dispensations that were developing. I will take the liberty here of drawing attention to the chapter called 'Blue and Green' in the first part, which was written five years ago but which I find even more significant now in re-reading it, for its suggestion as to how place can influence people in strange ways.

That should not take away from the personality and the achievement of my uncle Lakshman, the hero of this book if indeed it has one. In the same way, my analysis in another book of Richard de Zoysa, placing him in social context, should not take away from his personality and achievement either.

Reading through my account of the eighties, both what I experienced elsewhere and here at the Council, I realise what a seminal role Richard played, in illustrating the changes the city and the country underwent.

This book ends in 1992, when I began to move to the totally different world outside Colombo.

That seemed a natural progression from the furniture project the British Department of Overseas Development Assistance had begun, to show its commitment to the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987.

I thought it strange that John Keleher had wanted me to take charge of it, but perhaps he understood me better than I understood myself, and realised that I needed to know more about what was going on outside the charmed circle of the capital. That taught me the enormous amount of work that was needed to ensure social equity, in terms of skills development as well as infrastructure.

Friends

I do not regret then the movement away from the social life of Colombo which had been part and parcel of the Cultural Affairs of the Council. But coming into the Council again to talk about this evening, I remembered again the friends with whom I had worked for whom English was in effect a first language, the wonderful cultural programmes we conjured up with few resources, the old troopers whom the Council toured to packed halls in Colombo and increasingly bemused school children even in Kandy.

I remember David Woolger, who had three stints supporting government English programmes, and in the end understood what was needed more than his Sri Lankan colleagues and British experts who insisted on assistance at primary level when what we needed was greater skills of conceptualization and practical usage.

I remember Scott Richards and the superb productions he inspired, but also the scholarship boys who challenged conventions, got away with it in their productions in this hallowed hall, and were then killed for their pains during the JVP troubles of the eighties.

And I remember Rudi Corens producing Pinter's political plays that were stunningly relevant in the early nineties when Richard de Zoysa was killed, but also the 'Libation Bearers', which remains the best use ever I think of this wonderful garden that I trust will survive the latest building programme.

Experiences

I have tried to convey something of these experiences and many others. But the characters that contributed so much I have not, I must confess, really captured here. That is a shortcoming, and I can only plead in mitigation that trying to encompass that too would have been too much, for a book that covers over half a century in just seventy thousand words.

In the second part, which will bring the story of my house and its inhabitants up to date, I would hope to do better. But even in this brief record I trust that time and place and the people they encompass come across, to provide, as my favourite novelist of the 20th century Paul Scott might have put it, some sort of understanding of the truth. And as the world moves on, and time, with an intensity that makes the sleepy world before Duplication Road seem almost a dream, I venture to suggest that, even if attention need not be paid, memories should not fade without trace.

The book is published by International Book House, and may be ordered from newpet@sltnet.lk or oibh@sltnet.lk

 

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