ARCHITECTURE: I was carried away last week, while describing
the architecture of Lakmahal, by some of the dogs who had inhabited the
This was inevitable because I had wanted, in celebrating the place,
to revive memories of its denizens too.
And since it was because of my pleas as a little boy that dogs, just
six of them in the seventy year history of the house, were finally
allowed to reside inside the house, to sleep in a bedroom, usually mine,
and join us at meals, I feel a personal obligation to enter them too
into the record.
But in those days, when I was young and gregarious, I welcomed people
too, and was delighted when the guest rooms were occupied.
There were two of them, a long large room that lay behind the piano
room extension of the drawing room, and a tiny room that lay behind the
larger one, at the south west corner of the house.
Originally this had had a door that led out into the tiny yard
between the main house and the servants' quarters, but when I came back
from university I found this closed up, doubtless as security questions
became more worrying.
The large guest room opened from a second hall that lay behind the
entrance hall, through an arch that was directly opposite the main
This second hallway was a big square room with the grand triple
flighted staircase, eight steps north, eleven west and then six south,
that was another special feature of the house.
Under the second flight was a skillfully constructed store room, and
next to this was a door giving onto a long corridor that led westward to
the servants' quarters.
These had been converted from the stables of Alfred House, which had
been on the land my grandfather bought when he decided to build a house
for his family in Colombo.
They included a large kitchen, only just moving from wood to kerosene
when I was young, and a whole warren of other rooms. The corridor that
led to them also had a door to the pantry, so that food could be taken
through that to the large dining room.
Next to the guest room, straight through from the stair hall, and
thus providing a wonderful straight perspective from the main entrance
doors, was the library, overflowing still with many generations of books
behind which squirrels now build their nests.
Ricky, when he was young, would try to catch them and bark to
identify where the nests were, but he is past all that now, so they have
a field day to the detriment of the books, slipping in and out through
the bars of the large window looking out on the yard.
Next to this, a door at the south west corner of the library led into
a small passage which contained three other doors, eastward to the main
guest room, west to a bathroom and south into the small guest room.
The main occupants of the guest rooms in my early years were my
grandmother's brother Leo, on his fortnightly visits from Kurueagala,
along with his daughter Lakshmi.
They were often accompanied by another cousin, Ayra, who taught in
Kurunagala and stayed with them at the Old Place.
Uncle Leo died in 1971, just after I went away to university, and
Lakshmi twenty four years later, but I had hoped Ayra would attend
Lakmahal's birthday dinner last month along with her husband Derek
Together they had the longest connection with the house and its
inhabitants, so I was particularly sorry that they were unable to come
down from Kandy for the occasion.
All our childhood visitors from Kurunagala were great companions, in
addition to being assiduous providers of Elephant House cakes and
sausage rolls, and I much looked forward to their visits.
In the early sixties we went occasionally on family holidays to
Kurunagala, but before long the rest of the family found other pursuits
It was by myself then that I spent many happy times during school
holidays over the rest of the decade with Uncle Leo and Lakshmi at the
Old Place - and with my grandmother's even older sister, Ida, who was
blind but continued to run her own establishment, with a Burgher
companion, in one wing of the house.
Ayra had moved by then, to Colombo, in a practice that had become the
norm for so many capable teachers.
As the provinces fell behind, in the entertainment as well as the
social life they offered, as colleagues in provincial schools became
more emphatically swabhasha oriented with the abolishing of English
medium, all those who sought a more cosmopolitan way of life tried - and
usually succeeded as the pool of talent diminished - to get transfers to
This flight of capital, as it were, contributed to increase the gap
between the capital and the rest of the country, and of course it was
the poor children in what Kannangara had originally intended to be the
equals of metropolitan schools, the Central Schools in provincial and
district capitals, who suffered most.
We had hoped very much that Ayra would move into Lakmahal when she
got her transfer to Colombo, but she decided instead to stay with other
friends, the Obeysekeres, in the much more spacious, and aptly named
Maligawa, on Reid Avenue.
Five years later she moved into a flat that she shared with a cousin
on my father's side, a flat I remember vividly for it was there that I
had my farewell party before I went to England.
This was in 1971, just after the insurgency, when there was still a
curfew. I was going straight on to England after my Advanced Levels,
which had to be taken in Madras in those days, and I could not bear the
thought of a short stilted evening at home. With Ayra's help I convinced
my parents to let us stay out all night.
It was a tame affair by today's standards, but memorable for me, and
the more so because hardly any of my school friends of those days who
attended that party are now in the country.
Suffering from the deprivations of the seventies, including
standardization which effectively put paid to their chances of going to
university here, they were more inclined to settle down abroad when they
did finally get away, to study or to work, in the mid-seventies or
So, while there were two English friends from my university days to
celebrate Lakmahal at seventy, there was no one from my days at school.