Minette de Silva: An Ornament of Her Age, I-by Michael Roberts

Minette de Silva: An Ornament of Her Age, I-by Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts


Jane Russell … presenting A Memoir as one Step in a series and deploying the spelling of “Minette” which Minette favoured (not Minnette)


The whine of Minette’s white Renault as it climbed the steep curves of the driveway to St George’s [in Kandy] could be heard long before the car arrived under the arched porch. The car headlights would be switched off and I’d catch a few words in Sinhala being exchanged between Minette and Punchi Rala, a tall, fair old man, whose thin grey hair was tied in a tiny knot behind his head, a dirty sarong half falling from his slack stomach. Punchi Rala was a semi-alcoholic (kassipu being his favoured beverage) who slept on a donkey bed in the recess of the porch. Under his bed he kept a pike that had surely been purloined from the last King of Kandy’s armoury.

My bedroom had originally been the drivers’ room when Minette’s famous lawyer-politician father, George E de Silva, had built the house. Through the slatted door that opened onto the porch, I’d listen intently to their conversation. I was trying to improve my Sinhala. Finally, I’d hear Minette open and close the wood and glass double veranda doors and enter the bungalow. Then all would fall silent except for trains shunting at Kandy station in the valley far below.

Minette drove her car only twice a week.  On a weekday evening, she’d drive into Kandy to have dinner at ‘Gunfire’, the stunning house that sat atop a hill overlooking Kandy town, belonging to the small, twinkly eyed, ‘merry widower’ Willy Karunaratne, a famous society doctor.

On a Saturday or Sunday evening, she’d visit Willy’s tall, austere brother, Algie Karunaratne, who’d been her father’s younger partner in their Kandy law firm. There she’d dine with Algie and Letitia (Letty), his elegant, intellectual wife and whichever of their family happened to be visiting. They’d sit at a long mahogany table, served by barefoot male domestics, in the dining room of the house Minette herself had designed 25 years before. Known in Architectural History Books and Magazines as The Karunaratne House’, Algie and Letty had given Minette’s her first commission after she’d got her diploma from RIBA. Then, in her early thirties, as Ceylon’s first female architect, she’d pioneered techniques she’d learned in London and from Le Corbusier, her mentor and friend.


Now, in 1974, she was in her middle-fifties and like Miss Jean Brodie ‘in her prime’.

Under the severe restrictions of the United Front socialist (Trotskyist) government, privately owned motor vehicles were scarce. There were some Peugeots and Mazdas, plus many ancient British models – Morris Minors and Morris Travellers (the ‘wooded wagons’ so loved by planters’ wives to house shopping and dogs), and worthy Morris Oxfords and Austin Cambridges: these  together with a few Fiats, Citroens, Packard’s, Volvos, Saabs and of course the ubiquitous Land-Rover, were the most conspicuous. British VSOs in outstation posts were given Honda 50 motorcycles to get around.  But there were almost no modern Renaults in Sri Lanka in 1974. Sturdy and efficient, the Renault 4 estate resembled a ‘paan baagaya’. It was well-suited to Kandy’s switchback, narrow and imperfect roads, although it sounded like a vamped-up electric sewing machine as it climbed the hill to St Georges.

Minette’ s driving style, like her architectural practice, was entirely her own. She once drove me to Colombo.  We proceeded at 20 mph down the Peradeniya Road. “I don’t drive fast, and I give elephants and CTB buses a wide berth”, she warned me in the impeccable contralto drawl that was the result of the Received Pronunciation lessons she’d been subjected to at the private school in Wimbledon where she’d been put as a ten-year-old. Minette spoke Sinhalese with this same drawl. In her deep and melodious voice, a voice which romantic lady-novelists like to describe as ‘thrilling’, Minette’s instructions to Nancy, her lady’s maid-cum-cook, sounded almost comic. “Nancy, maama Nuweretaa yaanaavaa, haariiyadaa?”

During this car journey, somewhere near the village of Iddhalmagoda, (since renamed Cadjugama), Minette suddenly laughed out loud. She recalled how terrified (Sir) Laurence Olivier, the famous Shakespearean actor, had been of her driving. Sir Laurence had apparently cadged a lift from her to get to the airport. He’d been forced to leave his unstable actress wife Vivien Leigh, then in the middle of an outrageously wild fling with her Aussie co-star Peter Finch on the failing film set of ‘Elephant Walk’, to make it back to Britain in time to meet his commitments on the London stage.

“Of course, Vivien just threw me at Larry’s head!” Minette declared in a deadpan voice. She glanced at me sideways to see if I’d taken in the full import of this revelation. I must’ve looked suitably impressed as she then came out with a few more succulent titbits about the messy love lives of Pinewood royalty as we drove at a stately pace towards Colombo.

I once spent a night at the ‘Karunaratne House’.  It was the last night of the Kandy Perahera in 1978. The next morning, I stood on the large lawn gazing at the remarkable back-to-front exterior of the house. It exuded sunlight, and familial intimacy and happiness. But inside, the house seemed cluttered with too many novel and clashing ideas:a sunken dining room; a raised platform living room overly dominated by a George Keyt mural;  glass bricks separating the downstair rooms from the circular staircase: in short, the neophyte’s enthusiasm to pack in everything she’d learnt.


………….. To Be Continued


SOME REFERENCES added by Thuppahi Editor



A BIO-NOTE on Jane Russell

Jane Russell registered for her Ph.D work at Peradeniya University under the supervision of Professor K. M. de Silva in the 1970s when I was teaching there. She resided for a while at Minette’s  and I recall visits to the house and garnering infomation about Minette’s politician father from Minette — in keeping with my deployment of oral history.

Jane Russell was an active participsnt in the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya University in the early 1970s and one of the CSS papers wwas  a combo-essay by Jane & Janice Jiggins on the Dedigama by-election (circa 1973 ??) involving Dudley Senanayake.


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