Memories: Lakmahal’s Circle – Hope Todd

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 24 2020
Columns Memories: Lakmahal’s Circle – Hope Todd

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

I had intended to conclude this series with the Enemies of Promise I have recalled in the last three weeks. But at the beginning of this year one of the oldest and closest friends of the family died.

This was Hope Todd, who together with Cadiravel Mylvaganam and Diana Captain had been a constant presence at Lakmahal in the sixties. Myla died last August, and was the inspiration for this series, which I wrote to commemorate those I had known who had also I felt contributed to the Nation. When Hope followed, five months later, and Diana Captain less than a month after that, I realised that the record I was putting together of a significant slice of Sri Lankan life would not be complete if I did not write about them as well. 

Myla was my father’s friend from university days, Diana my mother’s from school. Hope however, had been a friend, or rather a protégé, of the older generation. I believe he came into contact with the family through my grandfather’s brother, Dr. Artie Wickremesinghe, I presume when he was stationed in Matale. Hope came from there, where his family had land. His father was I think Eurasian, his mother who lived on into the seventies a sweet old Burgher lady. 

Hope was her mainstay, for his eldest brother, whom he described as a rascal, had gone abroad and could not be traced, and the second, who was steady and helpful I gathered, had a large family and was not able to do as much as Hope. So he would visit Matale regularly, and once a year or so he would bring his mother down to stay with us in Colombo for a change, as he put it, which gave her great pleasure. 

My grandparents had taken Hope up by the forties, and he was the only guest at my parents’ 1948 wedding who was present at Lakmahal when I celebrated their 70th Anniversary. But initially his great friend had been my mother’s second brother Tissa, with whom I think he shared a house in Kandy in the fifties.

Tissa died young, in 1961, soon after we came back from Canada. By then Hope had moved to Hingurakgoda, for he worked for the Irrigation Department. But he had kept on the house in Kandy, sharing it with another family friend, Derrick Nugawela, who was a planter but was in those days building the house by the Kandy Lake to which he has retired. 

Hope stayed with us when he came to Colombo, sharing the big room downstairs with my grandmother’s brother Leo, who came every other weekend from Kurunagala to see friends and stock up on supplies. His daughter Lakshmi, and Ayra Perera, a cousin who stayed with them, would share the small room which led off it. I spent much time there with all of them, and 25 years later that was my suite when I moved downstairs.

House in Reeves Gardens

I was too young to stay with Hope in Hingurakgoda, but after he moved to Kandy I would go to him for a week or so during the school holidays. He had a little house in Reeves Gardens, from where I would walk down to the British Council to stock up on books. I was also expected, at least twice during each visit, to pay my respects to the two old ladies who lived next door, the Benzies sisters, the older one sedentary and the younger one bustling about, both very happy to talk. Hope was looked after by a boy of all work called Chanmugam, who ended up marrying the girl who worked for the Benzies.

But that period came to an end when Hope was seconded to work for the Tourist Board, which the UNP government of 1965 set up. He moved in with us then, and became the permanent occupant of the big room downstairs. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons when Uncle Leo and Lakshmi were not with us I would join him there, reading on what I thought of as Uncle Leo’s bed while Hope slept in his. But he always had the radio on, for the 3 hour Holiday Choice programme of those days, and I would pause when a favourite song was broadcast. Relief was necessary, for one year I had given myself the task of reading all Shakespeare’s plays. 

Hope was heavily involved in the establishment of the new hotels the Government was encouraging, and on several occasions I went with him to check on the redevelopment of the old Hikkaduwa Rest house, and the breaking down of the Bentota Rest house, on the site of which our first resort hotel, the Bentota Beach, came up. I still remember reading under a spreading banyan tree, one Wednesday afternoon – that was half day at S. Thomas’ – while he wandered over the broken building which I recalled having stayed at, most enjoyably, with my parents a year or two earlier.

Courting the Secretary

Hope helpfully took on the task of picking my mother up from Girl Guide Headquarters after work; a welcome relief to my father for my mother was never ready and often kept him waiting for ages. Hope did not mind this, and in 1968 we realised that the reason for this was that he was courting the Secretary to the Girl Guides, Kaly Rajasooriya. 

Her parents were not pleased, for they were staunch Buddhists, but Kaly was determined, and in December that year Hope and Kaly married. My mother had been Kaly’s Guide Captain at Ladies’ College, and knew her parents, who I think held her responsible, so the wedding clearly could not be from Lakmahal. But Diana and her mother stepped into the breach, and the couple were married at the Captain house in Mayura Place. 

They moved then to a little flat in Visakha Road, where they still were when I came back from Oxford in 1980. They would entertain me to dinner there, as they did others, one or two at a time, generally string hoppers, a simple but delicious meal. Hope had a wide range of interests and friends, including Peradeniya dons from his time in Kandy, and I remember once meeting Prof. K.H. Jayasinghe there when he was a focus of dissent with regard to the Jayewardene Government. 

Another great friend was Margaret Gooneratne, the Welsh lady who had lived with her husband in the flat at Girl Guide Headquarters, and ran the American Centre Library. Sadly, though she stayed on alone after her husband died, when she retired she decided to go back home to help her sister look after their aging mother. I remember she gave Hope her car, for his was by then on its last legs – though I am not sure if it was the same one, a Peugeot, which I recall Chanmugam cranking up to get it going in the old Kandy days.  

In the seventies Hope moved from the Tourist Board to the Ministry of Industries, and set up the Borwood Factory for rubber wood. It was I think in that incarnation that he visited England while I was at Oxford, and I helped to take him round, and also got him to Oxford which he much appreciated. Yasmin Raheem, another old guide, helped him in London, and I remember a most enjoyable birthday party for him at his place.

Unfortunately the Jayewardene Government did not favour local industries which required nurturing, and that excellent initiative was killed after the government changed. But I think Hope continued to work until retirement, and he and Kaly continued happily at Visakha Road until well into the nineties.

Moving on

But then the owners wanted the flat back and, given how steeply rents and prices had risen, they were in a quandary. But a friend stepped in and offered them the use of a flat in Flower Road, and when that arrangement had to end they were given another place in Borella. And when the family that owned the place decided they had to live there themselves, Hope and Kaly were given a small flat where they continued until his death. 

Kaly had stopped work when they married, for they both had a very traditional view of marriage, but that did not prevent her doing massive amounts of unpaid work for various charitable causes. First and foremost was the Girl Guides, but they also became heavily involved in projects to help the Sinhala peasantry in Northern areas who had suffered because of Tiger terror. They were great friends with Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s  wife  Lali, and went regularly with her to the North, laden with clothes and provisions for distribution. So, given these sympathies, and also their perceptions of the suffering the Tigers caused, they were much more sympathetic to my work for the Rajapaksa Government than many of Colombo’s elite. 

Hope and Kaly had a range of friends, and also in the younger generation for they had always been marvelous with children, who took them to their hearts when the parents they had first known passed away. But a few years back I realised that, having previously gone to Matale for Christmas to be with his mother, they had no regular billet for Christmas lunch. By then we were less crowded at home, so I invited them, and they became regulars, indeed mainstays with Myla when I did Christmas lunch on my own after Lakmahal was divided. But last year he was not well enough to make it. And in January, when I visited, though always gracious, I realised he was fading. 

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 24 2020

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