Painting Keyt with a family brush
By Diana Keyt
The sun was setting when the driver of the car pointed at the strange, flat-topped mountain. “Pothgala,” he said. “That’s Bible Rock,” my mother explained.

This September 5th would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. I wish now that I could talk to her and tell her I understand why, so many decades ago, she drove my sister and me in a hired car over the mountains to her Daniels relatives in Diyatalawa.

Ruth Jansz, my mother, had met Peggy Keyt when they were students at the teachers’ training school in Colombo. They became friends and Ruth became acquainted with the members of the original “Forty Three Group”. One of them my father, George Keyt, fell in love with her. They were married in St. Mary’s Church in Kegalla for her family had left the Dutch Reformed Church and had converted to Roman Catholicism.

Both my grandfathers had died young. Though my relatives had helped my grandmother, Connie, to educate her three sons and daughter, my father had left Trinity College to get a job. Painting was his talent and Ruth decided that he should have more time for his art. She took a teaching position at Trinity College and then my father painted all day in his studio. Our family now consisted of Peggy, my grandmother Connie and my parents. Peggy taught at Hillwood, Connie had a tiny pension, but it was my mother who nurtured my father in the early years before he became the famous George Keyt.

When my sister and I were born Ruth took a few months maternity leave and quickly returned to work. Because our house was so well situated (next to the Malwatta Vihare) Peggy would just take a few minutes walk to Hillwood and back and so spend most of her spare time playing with me. She developed a proprietary affection for us sisters that became an obsession. Harold Peiris and his wife Leah returned from Europe with their two little girls. They started building a house in Kandy with the architect Andrew Boyd. Alas, when the house was finished, Andrew and Leah left and Harold was left alone with his daughters. Peggy made her move and suggested that she and Harold marry. And so they did.

Around this time a kinsman of the Duke of Bedford, Martin Russell (he was then a British Army Officer) came into our lives. He saw himself as a patron of the arts and George Keyt was just the artist for him. Under Martin’s tutelage George changed his style and his paintings became quite different. George also started writing poetry of a vague and incomprehensible nature. Our simple bourgeois way of life did not please Martin. It is my belief that he disliked my mother, and urged my father to engage in extra marital affairs so that his personal Picasso would be more dashing in the European manner.
At all events, when my mother returned unexpectedly early one day she found my father with Lucia. Immediately she packed up and took her daughters to Diyatalawa.

I was with one of my Daniels aunts in the garden when we were astonished to see Harold Peiris drive up. Arguments and discussions followed and eventually we were bundled in his car and driven back to Kandy. When we arrived Harold scooped me up in his arms and carried me to Peggy. “I’ve got her back!” he announced. Ruth indignantly repudiated the suggestion that she live together with George and Lucia. She moved into an empty house (named “Alta” by Lionel Wendt) with Connie and her daughters.

Martin built a new house for George and his ménage in Sirimalwata. After a long visit to Bombay where he made important connections, George became established as a “world famous artist”. My mother wanted to divorce him and get child support but her priests told her that she would be excommunicated.
My mother would take me with her every day to Trinity College where I enjoyed being the only girl in a classroom of jolly boys. Peggy said that we two sisters should move up the hill to her new house and go to Hillwood with the Peiris girls. I grew to love Hillwood with its wonderful curriculum and teachers but had to pay the price of losing my mother.

Peggy was an intimidating woman. She would be jealous when I spent my free time with Ruth reading my special books, painting and watching the weavers and hummingbirds build their nests in the honeysuckle. I irrationally blamed my poor mother and became rude and insulting when she tried to see us. Most of the things I said, it must be added, were influenced by Peggy’s remarks.

Finally, when the Peiris’ moved to Colombo to educate their sons at Royal College we girls went along to attend Bishop’s College. The break with my mother was complete. I watched her tears with indifference.
Accepting an empty house from Harold Peiris, my mother was left alone without her children. She grew old. The house was taken from her and she lived on her pension in her own tiny house until she died. I too have grown old. I took all these years to forgive myself and to forgive my mother.

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