A request – The Island

Of everybody I have known, Nihal has taken the longest time dying. As far as I recall, he first announced his impending death 50 years ago. I thought he would make it to his father’s 90 years, but he fell short by two. Regardless of the time consumed, his life was a life well-lived.

He spent his early years as a Lake House employee at the family home in Wattala, where he was a neighbour of his Ananda schoolmate, my cousin, Asoka Gunasekara. Big Brother, Dr. Viranga Tissa, was a reputed medicine-man who has long been domiciled dow Under. Nihal, by no means the black sheep in the family, occupied an outer room with direct access to his motorbike. His father, a man of few words, took his ease on the haansi-putuva in the verandah.

I came to know quite well the spouses of their twin sisters, Manel and Indrani, Lakshman Ranatunge, head of the Mahaweli Engineering Agency and Denzil de Silva of the Government Film Unit. (In the coverage of the inauguration of our ‘Republican’ Constitution in 1972 at the Navarangahala, Denzil gave my wife and me more time on the screen than he vouchsafed most of the Ministers).

When the Official Language Act was brought into operation on 1st January 1964, I was put in charge of whatever had to be done at its commanding end, the General Treasury, and on that day the press people were directed to me for clarifications, etc. Nihal interviewed me for the Sunday Observer and carried a front-page piece, with a photo by Rienzie Wijeratne, who had made me look even younger than my 25 years. Nihal’s note referred to my footwear (sandals) and my writing habits (poetry) and left the occasion for the interview ‘to be filled in’. He may have guessed that for some time more, inter departmental correspondence would continue in English with a caveat in lower case at the bottom that read “the original in Sinhala will follow”.

As soon as the UNP came in the following year, I was pushed around (five Districts in 19 days – Totsy Vittachchi who did the pushing around seemed to take pleasure in telling me “These are not my instructions. These are Government orders’ ‘ – to which I gave myself the dubious satisfaction of retorting “That’s what a week ago would have been called ‘political interference’) – heady days that ended when I was moved finally to Matara. On the infrequent runs home to Kandana / Kurunegala, we stopped for a break at ‘Brief’ for the infant to be fed.

Eventually posted back to Colombo, we moved into a tiny apartment on Pedris Road and found Nihal next door at Alfred Place. He was in a kind of slice of an old house with several tenants, the landlady upstairs and Manjusri and family occupying the central space on the ground floor. There was a succession of young men at Nihal’s, sometimes they overlapped. With our little people around, ‘Club breaks’ (mostly at the Art Centre) were few. We were there when word reached us that the landlord’s agent had changed the locks at Manju’s and Nihal’s.

The Art Centre in those days, had a good supply of all kinds of power, and following a brief confab we trooped down to the site of the outrage led by Lucky Wikramanayake, lawyer extraordinary who, unbeknown to us could come up with a powerful kick as well. The illicit locks were got rid of, the police informed, the culprit summoned. It turned out that the perpetrator had expected to take possession of the premises in dispute as beneficiary of a dowry arrangement (which all civilised people deplore). Furthermore, I knew the man – he was a senior accountant at an industrial firm. I happened to be Director of Industries at the time. Thus, maybe, apologies were made and Lucky accepted them (with a flippant kind of grace).

Nihal continued to enjoy his work at Lake House, and made steady progress in terms of responsibilities imposed on him. Initially, he had had a bit of a struggle to move up to the editorial desks, as he had joined at or near the bottom as a proof-reader. (So, had I around the same time, the mid-1950s, but I went upstairs to the book publishing department, headed  by E P Mendis, brother of the historian Dr. G C Mendis. In addition to my duties as proofreader, I was given other tasks including checking the translation of ‘Golden Island’ and looking for bias in ’Ceylon Yesterday and Today’, the new work by Dr. Mendis).

I recall being told by his seniors at Lake House (Willie Bua / Clarence Fernando comes to mind) that Nihal was way and away the best reporter they had. That proved to be a matter of no consideration at all when the UNP took power in 1977: they fired him.

(I was sent to ‘the Pool’ for a prolonged hibernation: that entity derived its name from the ‘pool vote’ provided to the Treasury to cover the wages of senior officers in the periods between being transferred and assuming office at the new place).

By then Nihal had moved to a largish upstairs room, plus garage, in Havelock Town, that young architect Ranjith Alahakoon had done a marvelous job turning into several elegant spaces. Nihal had settled there with his collections of books, sculptures, paintings (including Manjusri’s rendering of a divine being’s “sax- eka”).

His comrade, S Pathiravitane was often there (they teamed up later to give Upali’s ‘The Island’ a certain shape). We were further down Havelock Road and on days when a new play was staged at the Wendt or Lumbini I’d stop by at Nihal’s to type out my review (unless of course, there had been an intermission at the Art Centre, and I had to rush to Lake House to do my typing there).

Those were days that did not recognize sexuality other than that between women and men – and saw no discussion at all of ‘such things’. I think I knew all Nihal’s companions but an exhibition of jealousy as is common among girl-friend/boy-friend hardly ever occurred.

Our ‘gay’ friends preferred their own company, but a few were at ease discussing their tangles with my wife (it was said that I had no heart).

Those days of prejudice continued. There were social acquaintances (and even a couple of our friends) who were terrified at the thought that my wife and even I would get to know of their ‘shame’.

There’s just the one lover that stands out in my memory: a young Arab from North Africa who, I believe, was indeed Nihal’s “anthima-last-final”, “one-and true-and only-love”. I can no longer remember whether they met in Belgrade in the early 1960s or in Paris some years later. If the latter, the atrocities committed by the French in Africa, particularly in Algeria, would have been out in the open (more or less). Fanon’s ‘Black Faces, White Masks’ would have begun to be read and the French police were unable to burn every copy of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (they began that operation in Paris the very day they heard that Fanon had died). ‘France’ has not changed one bit; within the last few months they sent fully armed destroyers, etc., to the eastern Mediterranean, where they have no excuse to be and have got the like-minded Biden & Blinken to try to ensure that ‘independent’ African nations keep Russian ‘mercenaries’ out – and employ only their own. (Given current reports on what ‘Canada’ did to native children for over a hundred years, one must conclude that justice demands that all such criminals as Macron and this Trudeau, be treated French fashion and guillotined.

Nihal was a reader – and had lost no time finding ‘Shakespeare & Company’ in Paris. It was probably there that he discovered Henry Miller and his ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and similar works.

And it was the time of other exciting events out there – the Paris students at the barricades, the new wave of film by Truffaut and Godard. He would have had a rich life in and around Paris but, as I can testify, the wine then was not denatured and would not have given him such anxiety as to give him cause for fear of death: his premonitions began around that time.

When Lake House became so intensely dumb, he helped the inimitable Haris Hulugalle launch ‘Focus’. Our older son had lost his pet dog and I promised him that Uncle Nihal would carry a poem ‘for Ringo’ in the first issue of his new newspaper (March, 1978). It was titled ‘Death of a Male Chauvinist Dog’.

There was another weekly he did later for a pro-SLFP paper, ‘FORUM’.

Pending his return to Lake House following the fall of the Dharmishtas, he teamed up with Pathi at the ‘The Island’.


Thank you

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