The British Council in Colombo entered my consciousness in the 1950s solely as a place with a library from which British classics unobtainable elsewhere could be borrowed and read. This was not as important to me as it was to students at other Colombo schools: my parents were dedicated buyers and readers of British fiction, they encouraged my two elder sisters and myself to spend our pocket money on books that took our fancy, and the presents they gave us on birthdays and at Christmas invariably included books by Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. School prizes (of which my sisters received many) tended to be books by Dickens, George Eliot, and other creators of books intended to improve our minds rather than entertain them – the size of these works tended to be off-putting, and I, for one, came a little late to the realization that Charles Dickens was one of the funniest writers who ever lived.
Our school, Bishop’s College, saw to it that we were introduced to Shakespeare (on the page, rather than on the stage), and mercifully, due to the skill and enthusiasm of our teachers, the Bard never became the burden and the bore that he did to many of my contemporaries. It was the British Council, however, that gave me my first glimpse of Shakespeare on the stage. In accordance with its established policy, groups of British actors occasionally toured Sri Lanka and visited its schools. I saw As You Like It performed on our school stage by a group of young British actors, and entirely understood that Orlando’s poems to Rosalind were pinned on trees. The actor’s words planted living trees in our imaginations, even though we knew that those trees were only the stage curtains.
I had just written Relative Merits, a book about my father’s family. Its Colombo launch took place on the stage at the British Council, with antique furniture as stage sets, and the acting abilities of the late Richard de Zoysa and others. I heard the voices of my kinsfolk and ancestors for the first time as those of living people.
I lost touch with the British Council when I went to University at Peradeniya (though not with Shakespeare, thanks to Professor Lyn Ludowyk and Robin Mayhead, who taught English literature there in my time). When I came back from Cambridge, I found that the British Council I had known had undergone a significant change, due to the efforts of Dr Rajiva Wijesinha, recently back from Oxford, who was on its staff and had introduced his seniors to the fact that literature existed in Sri Lanka, some of it in English.
I had just written Relative Merits, a book about my father’s family. Rajiva took an interest in this book (chiefly, I think, because it has some politicians in it) and suggested that its Colombo launch could take place on the stage at the British Council. With antique furniture borrowed from his parents’ home and mine to serve as stage sets, and the acting abilities of the late Richard de Zoysa and others, I heard the voices of my kinsfolk and ancestors for the first time as those of living people.
At that moment, there and then, my life as a creative writer began. May all writers have the good fortune that I had, which brought the British Council into my life, and has changed it forever.