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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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