In Search of Anil
Three friends and my husband decided to go to Sri Lanka this winter. While our friends wanted to get away from the forced cheer that pervades New Year’s Eve celebrations in Delhi, we had an ulterior motive. This is where our dear friend Anil de Silva was from. I first met her when I was a student in Paris in 1968. I had never come across so colourful and fascinating a person.
Despite her age (she was born in 1909) she had the voice of a 16-year-old. She lit up her small apartment in Paris with her smile and the gorgeous thick silks she wore with such elan, in flaming oranges, purples and reds. No less overwhelming and ‘exotic’ were the aromas of her culinary wizardry that wafted out of the tiny kitchen-for-one. The dishes were a heady mix of the cuisines from her native island, India and her imagination. This was the mix-and-match school of cooking in which colours and textures appear to spring from an artist’s palette.
It was here that I first saw a painting by George Keyt, often referred to as Sri Lanka’s MF Husain. But there was much more to view in this mini museum: particularly a portrait of Anil by the scientist Homi Bhabha, the late founder of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Anil wore an angry expression in the drawing: the flaring nostrils and the beginnings of a frown were the result of a remark the scientist had made to capture the angry-petulant look. There were other works on her walls by Indian artists. Which brings me to Anil’s India years: in 1946, she co-founded Marg magazine with Mulk Raj Anand. She told me that Anand and she would hold clandestine Quit India meetings in a room at the back of their flat while parties went on in the front room. An art historian and much else, Anil was also a political activist. Perhaps it was in her genes: her father George E. de Silva was the president of the Ceylon National Congress, a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and a prominent figure in what was then known as Ceylon. This illustrious de Silva family was from Kandy: Anil’s sister Minnette de Silva (another beauty) was a well-known architect, considered to have paved the way for Tropical Modernism. She was the first elected Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and an alumnus of Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai. Hence, our foray to Kandy, a city which sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains in central Sri Lanka.
We took the express train from Colombo Fort Railway Station, itself a revelation. Time seemed to have stopped: the officers wore white uniforms with black ties: some had clips keeping them in place and wore highly polished black shoes. The spotlessly clean station had a colonial anachronism in place: a Waiting Room for Foreigners only.
Alas, the 110-kilometre journey was anything but express: we seemed to stop every 10 minutes, not skipping even a single station en route. The train chugged its way ‘upcountry’ — as Kandy is referred to — by rice paddies, farmlands, through lush tea plantations and past small towns and villages which reminded me of Kerala.
Once we had climbed through the tunnels and approached Kandy, the vegetation turned thicker, the temperature dropped, and the humidity evaporated significantly: Colombo had been like a sauna bath. The almost-five-hour journey had other compensations. Our exercise for the day was over and done with: the train jerked fairly violently each time it stopped. We could hear our rattling bones. The brakes were decidedly ancient.
Kandy was special: Our hotel, Ocean’s Edge looked out over Kandy Lake, the artificially-created lake built by Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last king of Kandy. On the other side of this lake is the Temple of the Tooth, where a tooth of the Buddha is supposed to be.
But I digress. I wanted to find out more about George E. de Silva. The past is becoming evanescent: nobody had heard about him. The enterprising manager called the oldest employee of the hotel. His face broke into a smile. He waxed eloquent about this son of Kandy who had done it proud, and told us about his statue in town. Our pilgrimage to the hometown of Anil was now complete.
But the tryst with nostalgia was not over. Ashok Ferrey, novelist and friend, had told me: “You must go for high tea at the Galle Face Hotel and see the setting sun.” It was special. The huge orange ball of fire gradually descended into the sea as we sat nibbling the high-tea goodies. As soon as the sun met its watery end, a man dressed in a kilt and playing a bagpipe walked towards the Sri Lankan national flag fluttering on a pole. The guard accompanying him lowered the flag before folding it, and the two walked back. The sun had set but apparently not on the British Empire during high tea in Sri Lanka.
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