|Saturday, 15 February 2003|
Memories of Anil Moonesinghe
February 15th is Anil's birthday. Instead of the usual invitation to dinner for his brothers and their families, a friend, a cousin and both of us, it is an alms-giving in his memory.
How much my husband and I enjoyed an invitation to his birthday dinner. Not only did we feast on Joan's culinary expertise, we were entertained with the rousing conversation between him and brother Susil with enlivened the whole group; something not to be had at most parties where the norm was empty chatter till the food arrived. Although Anil was a politician it was never a tamasha but always that very intimate group.
Anil and brother Susil both had the gift of oratory spiced with tremendous humour. They both were deep into politics and world news and just listening to them arguing it out with the bond of brotherly affection deep between them made the evening well worth it.
Anil and I were only second cousins. Yet because Anil's father Piyadasa and my father Neel Kamal were the greatest friends as first cousins, we two grew up very closely. He was only a month older than me.
Piyadasa was a handsome man and he fell violently in love with a beautiful maiden in Galle - Sita Gunawardena. Piyadasa was quiet and reserved. Sita was bubbling with wit which she spewed out unreservedly to everyone's delight. We still quote her many spontaneous expressions. This is the wit that she has passed onto her sons.
While Piyadasa begot sons who were mischievous imps, Neel begot daughters who were being brought up for the future drawing rooms. At the age of five, Anil and I were taken to the Home-coming of an uncle.
I in my half sari and anklets had sat pasted to my mother on her chair when Anil came and told me, "Come to tell you a secret." He was my friend so I went with him. Anil had taken me to a corner and bitten my ear! I had howled the house down and all my mother had said was, "Why did you go?" Children are forgiving so he continued to be my friend.
When we girls visited Piyadasa's home, we were afraid to get down because the boys would be holding fierce Alsation dogs with German names. Anil, at twelve, was already aware of Goebels and Ribbentrop and all that was happening in far away Germany.
He was an excellent junior host full of healthy exuberance and chatter so we girls were kept entertained and had not a moment's boredom. When the boys visited Neel's house, they joined in our girlish games like playing 'Girls, Boys, Fruits, Flowers' which involved writing. When the game was over we discovered they had hardly written a word, only pretended they had.
I can still picture Anil, bending into two with laughter at the good joke he had played on the unsuspecting girls. Anil was also accused of puncturing the tyres of my precious bicycle. How I would have hated him if I knew. I never remembered to ask him if he was justly accused.
When we were both thirteen, Anil found me reading a novel from my parents' bookcase. Saying the book is what big people read, he said he would bring me something better.
He brought me Karl Marx and Engels. although I could understand the love story I was reading, Marx and Engels were completely beyond me. I pretended I liked the book so Anil would not be hurt but he was perceptive and knew I had not. He brought me his precious Laurel and Hardy comic books. That did not work either. When the Royal College boys learned I was his cousin whom he visited often during the lunch break, our house being nearby, they became quite excited.
The war evacuation separated us. We met only intermittently during our teens but were still close. When the war ended I was in the marriage market and Anil went off to the University of London to become a Bachelor of Law and a Barrister of the Middle Temple.
He had also become totally involved in the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain and enroled as a Member of the Labour Party. No doubt these were the revolutionary genes passed down from his grand-uncle the Anagarika Dharmapala. Through British politics he had met Jean and now he was making excuses to his parents why he could not return home just yet.
When he heard that I was to be married, he sent me a sweet little wedding gift. And when Tissa and I were to set sail for England, Anil's mother told me, "Bring him even by his ear."
Anil and Tissa liked each other at once. As we walked the roads of London together, quite a few Englishmen asked if they were brothers. He spent all his spare time taking us around. I had heard about Jean so I asked him to introduce her to us, which he did. It was Tissa, not I, who realized the two were married. "I cannot go back without her," Anil whispered to me. I wrote to his mother, "Anil is married. Accept her and invite them home."
When they returned, I befriended Jean who presented Anil with a daughter Janaki and a son, Vinod. Anil's mother with her wit quipped that when she wheels out the fair babies in their pram, people think she is the nanny! Anil was busy building a home for themselves and getting neck-deep in the Lanka Samasamaja Party with Colvin and N. M. and crowd. This somewhat alienated Anil from the rest of the family who were uncomfortable with 'Communism' but he never lost his smile for his relatives nor was he ever excluded from family affairs.
I too was busy with my life with Tissa. By the time we got in touch again, Anil had married Joan and had another son, Pravine. A daughter, Prianka, followed. I heard how Jean had had a bad accident in England and how Anil had flown to her, nursed her and brought her back with him. I believe he looked after her to the end. Politically, he had moved to the SLFP and re-entered Parliament.
As Minister of Transport and Chairman of the CTB, he endeavoured to make our transport system like it is in England.
His officers tell how they had workclothes in office because Anil would summon them anytime at night for inspection or some urgent maintenance work. He would, as Minister, hop into buses to do his personal checks. This was not the era when Benzes were offered duty free to Ministers and a fleet of other limousines for their wives. When Anil won the 1994 Parliamentary Elections and was not given the Transport Ministry, the country realized that running the country efficiently was no priority. He was offered the Deputy Speakership as a compensation.
It is amazing how childhood loves remain with us when so much else pass by like ships that call at port at night.
In our maturity, our childhood affection came back in strength, enveloping his wife Joan and my husband Tissa. I know how well Joan looked after Anil. She was his strength in his time of illness. He was a devoted father, a sincere friend.
He was handsome, charming, well-bred. Anil's teenage dream of working for the poor never dimmed. He laboured in his constituency so that the workers' standard of living would be raised and thereby the living standard of Sri Lanka.
Five days before he died, Anil telephoned me and said "I think my trip is over. I 'phoned to say goodbye.' May his journey in Sansara be short.
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