Photo courtesy Foreign Correspondents Association Sri Lanka
I was engaged in the thoroughly humdrum activity of marking some LL.B Honours dissertations early this Good Friday morning when I received an email from my old schoolmate, Sam Wickramasinghe, informing me of the death last night of Ananda Chittambalam. I am still shocked at the suddenness of his demise and terribly saddened by the news. But as Dryden said, ‘Death, itself, is nothing; but we fear / To be we know not what, we know not where’ and I take some small and inadequate solace in the fact that Ana’s end was swift.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu introduced me to Ana about ten years ago, and we got on extremely well due to our shared interests in politics, history, and amateur ethnography (Sinhalese caste politics being an especial interest), but above all, a love of books and an unquestioned assumption about their civilising influence in human life. We also shared a healthy appreciation of the old Ceylonese sense of humour, which included communal jokes of a kind that would not find favour in cosmopolitan circles today. I should like to think we laughed together because we also shared a conception of our country that was deeply pluralistic and celebratory of that fact. Indeed, without communal diversity, that entire genre of humour would not have its foundation. In a society where political gossiping is not merely a universally cherished way of passing the time but an art form, Ana was a past master at it. His memory for scandals, intrigues and inside stories past and present was formidable, which made his company both memorable and highly entertaining.
In the early years of our friendship, Ana and I met regularly for drinks and dinner at his haunt, the Capri Club, or for lunch at mine, the 80 Club. Our contact unfortunately was less frequent after I left Sri Lanka in 2010, because unlike us conformists, he never used email or Skype. We would always however make it a point to have a long chat over Christmas dinner at Ascot Avenue, where we would discuss not only political developments but also the latest politics and history literature.
Ana owned possibly the finest private library in Sri Lanka, which included not only a large collection of books to which he was constantly adding, but also a remarkable collection of papers and rare documents. When I needed something like the correspondence between Lord Soulbury and C. Suntharalingam or The Premier Stakes or J.L. Fernando’s Three Prime Ministers of Ceylon, it was to Ana that I went in the knowledge not only that he would most likely have them, but also have a lot of time to discuss why I was looking for them and then suggest unexpected sources or angles of enquiry. My bookshelves in Edinburgh are full of rare books and documents that Ana graciously photocopied and bound for me.
Anyone who has published a book knows the pleasure of meeting someone who has not only read the book but is also willing and able to critically engage with it. With Ana it was much more than that. He would typically invite the author to a drink and devote a whole evening to chatting about it. He always bought over 20 copies of every book I have ever published, so that he could send them to his friends and associates, at his personal expense, together with a handwritten note of commendation. These acts of old fashioned kindness were done with absolutely no expectation in return. I know that in other cases his generosity has extended to even arranging reprints of older publications, so that a present generation of readers would not be excluded from the pleasure and the education he clearly derived from them. Ana was, in short, the bibliophile par excellence.
I last met Ana in Colombo over the Christmas holidays in 2013/14. He was in fine form and the suddenness of his death is all the more shocking because of that. He was interested to discuss a couple of recent books by two Cambridge scholars of Sri Lankan origin: Dr Sujit Sivasundaram’s Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony and Dr Harshan Kumarasingham’s A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Westminster System in Post-Colonial India and Sri Lanka, both published in 2013.
Ana was thoroughly excited to learn of the research projects on Sir Ivor Jennings and processes of Asian decolonisation that Harshan is currently undertaking (and to which I am a minor contributor), and was virtually ecstatic to learn of an unpublished manuscript by Jennings on Ceylon’s late-colonial constitutional development that Harshan will be editing for publication next year on the half-centenary anniversary of Jennings’ death. Enthusiasm fired, he called me practically everyday at home while I was in Colombo to ask questions, learn more, suggest sources, relate anecdotes, and to help us, he promised to compile a dossier of documents in his possession, including an unpublished correspondence between his father and D.S. Senanayake. It is desperately sad that Ana would not be with us when all these books and journal articles that he would have enjoyed so much will be published in the coming months.
One of Ana’s favourite books was Yasmine Gooneratne’s Relative Merits. I think it resonated with his sense of sentimentality for a Ceylon long gone while also providing plentiful opportunities for waspish disagreements with the author’s elegiac depictions of her Bandaranaike kinsmen. But now that he is himself gone, it reminded me of Gooneratne’s epigraph, from Katherine Mansfield’s Athenaeum review of Sir Harry Johnston’s The Gay-Dombeys, entitled ‘The Victorian Jungle.’ It describes perfectly the reasons why Ana Chittambalam loved history and books.
We shall never see these people again; we shall share nothing more with them. We shall never push open their garden gates and smell our way past the flower bushes to the white verandahs where they sit gossiping in the velvet moonlight. Why should we feel then this passionate interest? Is it because, prisoners as we are, we love to feel we have inhabited other lives – lived more lives than one – or are we reluctant to withdraw wholly because of that whispered word ‘Finis’ which locks the doors against us, one by one, for ever?