death anniversary of Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike
Christine Wickramasinghe - Island Thu Jun 26 2003
The family physician stood at the top of the staircase at "Granta" and announced to the anxious relatives assembled below: "Mrs Dias has just given birth to a fine baby boy weighing a little over thirteen pounds." "Good Lord!" exclaimed our grandfather. "A Mighty Atom!’" That was how Felix Reginald Dias Bandaranaike (Jnr.) joined the family at 1st Lane, Colpelty (now Mahanuge Gardens).
His parents were delighted. Large family units were still popular in the ’30s. His stepbrother Mickey and his sister Christine looked forward to even happier times than they already enjoyed while the cousins down the lane were always thrilled to welcome another kid into their midst, a symbol of endless possibilities.
Reginald Felix (Bunny), Felix’s -father, had him christened Felix Reginald after grandfather, hoping that the grandson would take after his paternal grandfather in some respects, notably a predisposition for the law and a generous portion of wit and intelligence. Interested observers might discern to what extent these wishes were fulfilled.
Young Felix spent a happy childhood, his father’s restrictive rules being greatly tempered by his mother’s milder regime. His birthdays were celebrated every November 5th with a grand ‘Guy Fawkes’ party. His father was a loyal British subject (with certain reservations regarding intermarriage and joining the armed Forces). He was an authority on British History so we looked forward to this annual event with its lavish display of fireworks culminating in the burning of a guy. This often upset the women servants in the neighbourhood as they refused to believe it was only an effigy of a British Traitor four centuries ago.
At an early age, Felix’s instinct for the humorous became evident. Auntie Freda’s bouncing, bonny baby showed no lack of bounce literally or metaphorically. He could take the hardest knocks and come up smiling. When Christine and he were being driven home from school in their Baby Austin the car door flew open as they rounded the bend from Turret Road into Galle Road and podgy Felix rolled out on to the road. They decided not to mention the fact at home fearing that the driver might lose his Job. But on second thoughts the man decided to tell the mistress about it. She was most concerned and wanted to send for the doctor. Felix cheerfully dismissed her fears saying: "I stopped for a roll at Perera & Sons."
Felix exploited his sense of humour to his advantage as well as amusement. His father, the strict disciplinarian, was never the target of his jokes but his mother suffered occasionally. A teacher by profession she controlled her children with gentle restraints. However, even those irked Felix at times. He got up one morning pretending to be possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor. "Freda!" he intoned in sepulchral tones. "Give your youngsters plenty of bacon, not cod liver oil." Again "Stop sending Felix to dancing classes" or "Sack his Maths and Sinhalese tutors" and "It’s perfectly safe for him to ride his bicycle on the roads or drive the car." Our aunt was frantic not knowing what to make of these utterances. On medical advice she kept him from school until Felix, at the pleading of Christine (who found it difficult to sustain her role in the act), gave up the presence. He manoeuvred the demetamorphosis so artistically that his mother never solved the mystery.
Females, both young and old, were popular objects of his teasing. There were the relatives at "The Rosary," his mother’s home, where the "Grania" children were sent on regular visits and where they received much spoiling from a bevy of old ladies complete with lavendar, lace, muslin jackets and Victorian skirts. On one occasion the old dears came for dinner to "Granta." Felix’s mother’s cook was one who had been passed on to them by a retiring English Judge. This man was a master of English cuisine. He used to get his mistress to leave menus on the table at formal dinner parties. Alice Auntie, a delicate spinster grand-aunt, who was seated next to Felix, inquired from him about the first item on the menu. "That’s Mock Turtle Soup," explained Felix. "Oh!" said Aunt Alice. "And where does your mother get the turtles from?" "Ah those," said Felix.. "We get plenty of them in our back garden, crawling up from the Beira Lake." Alice Auntie put down her spoon and sent away the rest of the soup untasted and most of the meal that followed. When Felix’s mother questioned him later as to whether anything had upset the old lady he disclaimed all knowledge, his face the picture of innocence.
Then there was the nurse who sponged Felix when he was recovering from appendicitis. She sponged him down to the navel and then adroitly continued from his knees downwards- "Why don’t you do the whole of me? After all I’m only a little boy," he simpered coyly and she had to comply.
Felix was a lovable rascal and masterminded many a fun-filled escapade. This suited his brother, sister and cousins who acknowledged his organising ability while keeping a wary eye on him in case his ego exceeded its bounds.
Happily for Felix and his siblings their father was a dedicated Freemason, He would disappear to the Masonic Temple for several hours of an evening every month. That was the time his children would be their natural selves.
They would drag out a big black box from under a bed in the Visitors’ Room, Pandora’s Box we called it. The cousins (excepting the nursery group) were rarely left out of the goings-on at "Granta." Our aunt was persuaded to go visiting on such occasions but she must have had an inkling of the conspiracies.
The box contained books, letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings, photographs and objects considered "forbidden fruit" for youthful consumption. Avidly we pored over this material ranging from facts of life to unpublished activities of staid and pious members of earlier generations, their romances, feuds and lapses; we learned about our British, German, Italian and West Indian connections and heaps more that was beautiful, exciting, sad and sometimes downright foolish. I think we benefited from what we learned.
Felix too. It was a lesson about life that went deeper than anything we acquired from school or parents.
Then followed a feast of another kind, a delicious meal consisting of goodies such as masalavadai, godambs, Buhari Chicken, seeni sambol, porkies, cream buns and icecream. We really enjoyed those evenings although not always around Pandora’s Box.
Admittedly Felix possessed an IQ above the average, bordering possibly on the precocious. But he was unsnubbable, countering all critics with his disarming chuckle and twinkling eye — One had to allow for the fact that he was the product of three generations of men of the law, religion and letters on his father’s and mother’s sides, not to speak of the access he had to the libraries of his father and grandfather. Literature, law books, encyclopaedias were always available. What is surprising is that friends and relations continued to tolerate him considering the way his otherwise undemonstrative father loved to show off Felix.
In wartime, `A3or instance, the skies were constantly being ripped through by Allied planes flying over Colombo. "Felix," ordered his father, "what is the name of that plane that just flew overhead?" "Hurricane," replied Felix promptly. "How can you tell?"we used to ask — Felix could describe the identifying marks which, on checking, were found to be perfectly correct. He could tell a Spitfire from a Hurricane or an American B2 Bomber from a Reconnaissance plane, and he was only twelve.
He knew most of the answers be they to grandfather’s trickiest Crossword clues or to cousins preparing for a Radio Quiz. Irritating? Sometimes. But he was merely being helpful.
He was no good at Sports unlike his brother. He loved reading; the Holy Bible, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde amongst his favourites. The works of Dickens were popular with the family for two reasons: one being that Sir Henry Fielding Dickens (Charles’s son) had been Grandpapa’s tutor at Cambridge and had visited his pupil and family in Ceylon with his wife; also, because Uncle Bunny used to read "A Christmas Carol" to his children every Christmas Eve in order to keep them out of the way of their mother, preparing to play Mother Santa at night.
Christmas was a particularly happy time for Felix and his family. It had a lot to do with gift-giving, eating, drinking, carol singing, concerts and the like and centred round our grandfather. Felix Dias (Snr.) had a puckish sense of humour not unlike his grandson’s but a trifle more wicked. He knew most persons by a nickname of his coinage. At New Year he would sometimes take his grandsons to visit relations’ houses where unattached young ladies were on show for eligible bachelors while their mothers vied with each other for praise of their culinary skills. This was part of family tradition and Felix was never bored by tradition. Though not even an eligible bachelor at the time he used to amuse himself by chatting up the girls or pulling funny faces at them and sending them into whales of giggles. In either case they failed to impress the bachelors. The two Felix’s chuckled for days over the comic situations they had encountered.
It was difficult to tell which was the real Felix. The humorist, the serious student of law and religion, the genial companion or politician. We often wondered uneasily. Were his politics also another act? No. He had to sacrifice too much to do it for his own amusement. But his natural love of teasing appeared even in Parliament when he used it to embarrass his foes as during the "Baring of MP’s Assets" Bill.
Was he a despot and a dictator? In the Family he was the peace-maker, dealing with the toughest old ladies and the knottiest legal problems with satisfaction to all and malice to none.
Did he deserve the titles "Super Brat," "Mighty Atom," or did he become too big for his boots? History can make its own judgement. With us it was he who kept alive our childhood bonds, becoming a child again every Christmas, waiting for the carol-singers on Christmas Eve, having the family round his own Christmas table and playing Father Christmas to those who shared his life from infancy - the old, their children, the domestic staff and the disabled.
Yes, there were some things which Felix took seriously like his loyalty to his Faith, his Family, his friends and his ideals.