The late Ranasinghe appeared a robust guy with a ‘cast-iron’ personality. The fact that he had some connections with Colombo gave him an added layer of superiority. To what degree it was true was unknown but he used to take the credit for reporting to President Premadasa about the wasteful nature of the vast basement area of the building that was left idling for decades.
The refurbishing and conversion of the basement into several flats to provide extra accommodation for diplomatic staff and a new visa office took place during Caretaker Ranasinghe’s time. The newly converted flats helped to curb the foreign exchange drain from the government that was spent year on year to outside landlords.
Two members of the High Commission’s ‘Service Staff,’ who initially rented rooms from old English landladies, became Landlords on their own right after the demise of the grand old ladies as they had written their houses to Sri Lankan tenants in the last Will.
Naturally the Sri Lankans had been in the good books of the old dames having treated them not merely as Landladies but considering and treating them with maternal feelings in their old age! This turn of events helped to some extent minimize the accommodation problem for the new officers who came to London on a tour of duty.
Ranasinghe in his indomitable manner had many bones to pick with the High Commission Management during his time of service. Once he went raving mad with a female diplomatic officer for blocking the sewerage system (in her newly converted flat) where the High Commission had to spend a good deal of money to clear the blocked drains by a firm of experts - Dyno-Rod.
In addition to the converted basement flats, a separate apartment designed on the uppermost floor of the building adjacent to the caretaker’s quarters led to some confusion when a Senior Tamil Diplomat was given shelter as ‘Ranasinghe’s neighbour’. Ranasinghe eternally complained openly about ‘too many Tamil persons visiting the diplomatic officer at night during unsocial hours when he had to constantly open the main entrance door to let them into the main building’.
Icing on the cake
Apart from the inconvenience of coming down three flights of steps to open the main entrance door at night his fear was that the ‘LTTE sympathisers could enter the building on the premise of meeting the officer and plant a bomb to blow the whole building into smithereens!’ He had a case in point in complaining so; because once the front door was open, access was free to three floors along the stairway before reaching the diplomatic officer’s flat above.
Ranasinghe’s fears about LTTE activities was brought to light by an unusual event that followed in The Island newspaper on the front page, under a prominent caption, at a time when Velupillai Prabhakaran publicly announced to ‘go for Sinhala blood’ in one of his speeches during his birthday celebrations in Wanni. The news items which appeared in a prominent box under the caption “Prabhakaran’s Cake” had infuriated President Premadasa to no end:
“Prabhakaran’s Cake” – The Island
“The innocent staff at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London were taken for a ride, ‘on a sugar coating’ on Monday November 30 by being served pieces of Prabhakaran’s birthday cake”.
“According to a victim who informed ‘The Island’, more in shame than in anger, after finding out what really had taken place, after three trays of the birthday cake were brought to the High Commission building on Friday night at 7.05 pm (after office hours)”. “The trays of cakes were handed over to a new diplomatic officer who has just been appointed to the Mission in London and who is housed in a flat on the third floor of the High Commission building.”
In deep water
On Monday November 30 two ladies, one of them being an outgoing diplomatic officer, have been serving pieces of Prabhakaran’s birthday cake to all the staff at the High Commission, with broad smiles and jokes, being completely oblivious to what they were doing” .(sic)
Having read the news item in The Island, I contacted Ranasinghe to clarify matters (as anyone would have assumed that I was behind the scene as I acted as The Island London Correspondent at the time)! All he had to say was that ‘at the Wimbledon Hindu Kovil some Sri Lankan Tamils had celebrated Prabhakaran’s birthday with a pooja; he did answer the main door bell at around 7.00 pm and accepted a tray containing a cake from some Sri Lankan Tamils with instructions to be given to the Officer on the top floor’.
Ranasinghe was thrown into deep water from that incident onwards as everyone suspected him of being the culprit who leaked the news out, considering the time mentioned of the delivery of the cake at the High Commission as 7.05 pm.
Ranasinghe naturally had a rough ride from there onwards in his job. Added to his problems at work he had to attend to a teenage son who suffered from a nervous breakdown who regularly had to visit St. Mary's teaching Hospital at Paddington (walking distance from the High Commission) for treatment.
When his contract of employment came to an end, the acting High Commissioner spelt out the orders that had come from the Foreign Office, Colombo, which meant that not only Ranasinghe had to return back to Sri Lanka but to vacate his flat 'immediately'.
The sledge hammer blow he received out of the blue threw him completely out of balance without knowing what steps he should take next!
Finally, he approached the Acting High Commissioner and pleaded with him, seeking his personal assistance, to try and get an extension authorised for him to stay in London for a period till at least until such time his sick child's treatment was completed.
Despite producing all medical reports and a personal letter from the Neurologist about his son's condition and gradual prognosis, nothing could shift from the decision authorities had already taken about his extension of service which only made him a broken man in a vulnerable situation.
Could anyone in Ranasinghe's predicament expect any rational behaviour in such a calamity? Having failed every move to reverse the government decision and being 'marooned' in London with a family and a sick child who was undergoing treatment, he lost his cool and approached the Deputy High Commissioner in a rage and threatened him 'not to step down from the aeroplane at Bandaranaike International airport in Colombo'. It certainly was a tall order!
However, providence played a vital role in this man's hour of need. When his plight was brought to the attention of the empathetic social workers attached to the NHS in Paddington area through the Hospital authorities, they arranged a personal interview for him with the Home Office where Ranasinghe poured out his heart to the British immigration officials.
Whatever said and done, the British are very kind and sympathetic in the core of their heart. Ranasinghe and his family were given leave to remain in the UK indefinitely and encouraged to continue with the child's treatment. As an added bonus, he received financial assistance from his local council and a spacious house to live in a residential area at Queens Way, London W2.
I saw him for the last time in London, before his death, while I took a casual walk along the streets of Cricklewood, London NW2, when a burgundy coloured Mercedes Benz passed me and stopped ahead of me. Suddenly the front doors of the Benz opened and came out Ranasinghe with a broad smile with his son, who seemed to have recovered from his illness.
He appeared quite contended and full of beans and told me with a broad smile that he was working as a concierge in a star hotel (either Hilton or Dorchester!) in Mayfair.
Whenever I think of him even today, I cannot escape from a visualization where I see this short, dark person showing his pearl white teeth getting out his posh car smiling and coming towards me calling "Ah Tilak Mahattaya"!