My cousin’s guest house upcountry – Part II
This week we feature Part II of the chapter, My
cousin’s guest house upcountry, excerpted from the book A Nice Burgher
Girl by Jean Arasanayagam.
Van Rooyen and the Judge both left their impression on the lives of
Joyce and Brenda who at that time were young schoolgirls in the early
1930s. They were both very observant young misses, always on the lookout
for the opportune moment to have a little innocent fun.
They observed Mr. Van Rooyen’s allergy to finely ground pepper. If the
slightest whiff wafted into his nostrils, he would sneeze as much as if
he had taken a pinch of snuff. One day while peppering his soft-boiled
egg, he unfolded his serviette and began to sneeze without a pause.
Frank Solomons, the father, took one look at Brenda’s face and pointed
sternly to the door. She got up meekly from her seat and walked towards
it without protest. Within the folds of the serviette, Brenda had put in
a liberal sprinkling of pepper.
Joyce recollected the occasion when there was a great to-do at the
stream which ran at the bottom of the garden. A man, who had come for a
bath, had had a heart attack, and had died on the spot. She was present
when the post-mortem was being carried out. “To me, when the knife
carefully slit through the corpse, it was as if a dark overcoat was
being unbuttoned to reveal the pink flesh beneath,” she recounted.
The death was a big happening at that time. Willy Prins, with his dark,
lustrous eyes and curling black lashes, who was working at the hotel in
Bandarawela, came up to the spot where the body lay, solemnly doffed his
cap and with a sober expression on his face, shook hands with the
corpse. “Goodbye, old fellow,” he said. “Farewell.”
The death had a dramatic effect on the whole village and the funeral was
a great event. The people built the pyres on the Patna land and set them
alight. They blazed away like beacons, heralding the happenings.
Buddhist monks were present at the performance of the rituals. Coconuts
were thrown into the fires at the point at which the brain would burst
within the skull… “Those are my memories of those funerals which were,
in a sense, epic happenings in that remote past,” Joyce recollected.
Joyce’s grandmother, old Mrs. Buttery, was a formidable character in
their lives. “You could balance a dish on her bosom,” was a saying about
her. She was also supposed to be able to see with her eyes closed, so
that if she was even lying down in bed to rest or taking an afternoon
nap with a pillow across her face, she would be aware of everything that
was going on in any part of the house.
During the war years Mrs. Buttery hoarded rice to circumvent any
shortage or rationing. There were bags of rice in the bedroom, which
were put into zinc trunks and covered with appliquéd crepe cloth to
match the curtains. The bags ended up lasting not only for the duration
of the war, but for long afterwards.
“She was given to hoarding.” That was Joyce’s succinct comment.
Mrs. Buttery had been quite a dashing young woman in the early years of
her marriage. Her husband had been in the Survey Department, and very
often she was left alone in some remote outpost when Mr. Buttery went on
his surveying expeditions.
When they were stationed at Kantalai she had felt bored one day, so she
dressed herself up in a contrived disguise, donned her husband’s heavy
raincoat, put on a papier-mâché mask which had been lying about the
house (it could have been a Santa Claus mask or even a Punchinello, at
any rate it had ruddy, cheeks and blue eyes), and with a hat pulled low
over her brow, she took her three children with her and walked to the
Every time personable young village women passed by, she would reach out
her hand, stroke the women’s arms and murmur, “nalla pombalai,”
(beautiful woman). The women grimaced and frowned at her, shrugged her
off and complained to their men folk that Mr. Buttery’s brother, who was
in the navy, had returned from one of his voyages and was molesting
women. Those village women did not know about masks, that kind anyway.
The headman came and complained to Mr. Buttery about his brother.
Mrs. Buttery was so protective of her husband, that when the day arrived
for him to collect the salaries for the workers, she would go forth
accompanied by the children. She put all the money away carefully in the
fold of the hem of her long-skirted gown and draped the gathered skirts
over her arm.
Mr. Buttery, too, had his adventures when he went surveying the terrain.
The cart bull would be blindfolded as it travelled through jungles
infested with bear, leopard, wild boar and wild buffalo. The carter
would beat on a kerosene-oil tin with a stick to scare any leopards
away. The leopards would disappear but only for a short time, and as the
cart turned along another path or reached a grassy knoll the leopards
would confront them in another part of the jungle.
Joyce recollected yet another story that her grandmother had told her.
All these events had taken place in the latter part of the nineteenth
century. Kantalai would be periodically flooded during the great
monsoonal rains. One day, the headman had a dream that a human sacrifice
was necessary to protect the village from famine, so he went to his
elder sister and told her that if the village was to be saved from all
further vicissitudes, the life of her eldest son would need to be
sacrificed. This, according to his dream, was the only way to prevent
famine and death.
The mother consented reluctantly. The boy was first taken to the market,
where the uncle bought him sweetmeats, and from thence he was led to the
sluice gates where he was made to lie down. While the boy was eating the
sweets, the cement and water were mixed together and the mixture poured
gradually over the boy’s body. When it went into his eyes, blinding him,
he called out “Mama, kan” (uncle, my eyes) – and ever since, according
to the story handed down from generation to generation, the spot where
the water passes under the sluice gates near the Kantalai rest house is
supposed to be haunted.
According to R.L. Brohier (Seeillg Ceylon) the legend has a different
twist: The human sacrifice was a virgin who had to give up her life to
satisfy “the lust of the demon.” She is also supposed to have shouted
“Mama talai” (uncle, my head). The lake came to be called thus
‘Kantalai’ and a portion of the embankment called ‘Women’s Bund.’
However, Joyce’s narrative remains as she told me.
Before Joyce and Brenda were born, their great-grandmother came on a
holiday visit to Bandarawela accompanied by a little boy who was staying
with her. He was given a dose of castor oil emulsion one day, of which
some was left over. Their grandmother did not believe in letting
anything ‘remain.’ “Ah child, how to waste,” she said, and drank the
rest of the castor oil. She purged continuously until she fainted from
weakness. Yet, to her, it had been worth the while: not a drop of the
emulsion was wasted. ‘Ah child, how to waste’ became a favourite maxim
in that household ever after.
When nightfall came it was always pitch black as there were no
streetlights near the house in Bandarawela. Candlelight and paraffin
lights were used, as there was no electricity in the neighbourhood. The
household was always well stocked with rice, salt, wine and oil, so that
there was no necessity to go in search of these essentials after dark.
One day the ayah was chased by a polonga as she went into the house. She
had the presence of mind to drop one of the outer cloths tucked round
her waist. The polonga was diverted by it and pecked at the cloth, while
the woman escaped.
Joyce had once been playing and coming home at dusk almost trod on a
polonga as she raced up the garden. Danger lurked among these apple
trees and flowerbeds. Nightfall and darkness were alive with more
palpable forces. The landscape changed. Odours, smells, strong, rank,
predominated over the delicate scents of ‘hush-n-hana’ (queen of the
night) and (kiss me quickly) bronze tebia uniflora.
That upcountry home still remains, but no longer the home that belonged
to the Solomons family and no longer a guest house. Whenever Joyce
returns to the island, she makes it a point to go up to Bandarawela,
where she still meets the caretakers and servants from the past. But the
PGs and many others have long since vanished from the scene.
Of hauntings and tauntings, love and mala
Review: Short Stories And Poems by J.
T. Mirando – Self-published, 2007, pp.86
In the days of long ago, story-tellers made homes the wonderful things
they were. This is a tradition that has gone somewhat astray, although
we can still listen to a sleepy grandfather mumble of those days when he
was young and the girls would giggle and the boys would shrug and say,
“Appachi must have been living in the Stone Age!”
Today, although this vocal art of story¬telling seems to have dwindled
rapidly, and the really good stories are told by the politicians, we
have the many who write, carry their stories into print and search their
own past to tell us so much in their books. This is one service I can
commend with all my heart. Newspapers, publishers, give to each of us
that old padda-boat to carry us along the canals into the past ¬and this
is where J. Titus Mirando comes in.
I am not looking at the manner of his writing and the hackneyed clichés,
and I’m not going to say that he has a ‘literary manner’ and that he is
on his way to being a great literary artist. I will not tell you of the
many typos that have somehow missed his eye. All that would be rather
foolish of me. He undoubtedly has this knack of unpacking a lot of the
little things of his day and assembling them, even considering them with
a rueful eye, and eureka! There’s a story to tell.
He has peppered this collection with his poems as well and I cannot, in
any truth, think them special or unique or of the highest quality – but
what the heck? He’s trying, and I admire the effort. What is more, he is
not writing for the money but just to record all he has known of, heard
of and put it all in his readers’ laps. One mind singing songs that
could be most endearing, despite the many grammatical wrong notes, the
couching of lines that are rather old-fashioned and the movement of the
characters who seem to live both in the present and the past.
Mirando’s first story is one that is quite familiar: that of a man and
woman who find love becoming wholly one-sided. There is much detail –
the wife’s secret midnight trysts, the treasured objects of the home
that she gives her poor lover (even her wedding ring!) and Mirando
throws in those old well-worn superstitions of his days: A mishap on the
wedding day brings trouble to the couple in later years... to see a lone
sparrow when on the honeymoon brings nothing but sorrow.
I feel that these two events should have launched the story – the
wedding, the mishap, the sparrow – but that’s only my opinion. Anyway
the good husband meets his death outside the kitchen door, apparently
trying to follow his wandering wife and the bad woman is left to learn
that her poor lover, having had his fill of her, wants her no longer. A
fitting end, one may say, but there is a hint of mystery that Mirando
does not unravel. The husband’s death is a whodunit of sorts, but there
is no follow-up.
The old story of the woman in white is redone in the second story, but
this time this Mohini brings the man good fortune. With such meat to
digest, we can expect the way the stories will turn out – a girl with
her son born out of wedlock, the man determined to surmount all odds to
marry her while her bastard son is pushed out of doors by the girl’s
The couple eventually marries but she is unhappy. When a servant boy is
brought into the home, the wife has nothing but hatred for him. One day
she beats the boy so cruelly that he has to be hospitalised – and then
the truth: the boy, with his birthmark, is the son she bore.
What Mirando has done is work his stories into decidedly happy endings
as best he could, as if to say, “There’s hope, even for the worst of
us.” The stories are, in a way, quite interesting with a love-theme that
pervades, telling us that the writer is quite the romantic.
Do not dismiss this collection, for there is much of the days when
poltergeists played their games, wives ran off with the chauffeurs, and
the soldier who celebrated his son’s birthday by coming home from the
front in a coffin, and the sight of one ghost pursuing another; the
attentions paid to a young boy by a paedophile; and haunted houses where
the spirits are both willing and able... a regular smorgasbord of themes
that may be all too familiar, yet carry that Mirando blend.
This is an interesting collection and as the writer says, most of the
stories are true. In fact, some of them are in the first person and
carry his reactions to events deftly. He needs to keep writing, of
course, and I hope that this small success will develop into something
extraordinary in the days to come.
A colossus who strode all fields of action
By Ravi Nagahawatte
If there was anything in Ernest Hemingway’s character that stood out
more than anything else, it was his love for life. The twentieth century
writer displayed an enormous appetite for the good things in life.
When not writing, he travelled, hunted, fished and enjoyed good company
and his drink, whether it was scotch or wine. In his latter years, he
was not in the best of health. Failing to enjoy life to the fullest
nagged him more than the physical ailments which caused his ill-health.
As a result he took his life on July 2, 1961 by shooting himself.
As with most great writers, his life was plagued by heavy drinking. He
looked for joy and happiness but could never avoid incidents which
brought him sorrow. Three of his marriages were dissolved and they
caused him heartache.
Hemingway used these sorrowful experiences to his advantage, when
writing. He is quoted in A.E. Hotchner’s biography on Ernest Hemingway,
titled Papa Hemingway, that a writer should exercise the hurt in him
carefully so that he could use it when writing.
His lively and powerful style of writing, characterised by his short
sentences, still has the ability to influence present day scribes. He
severely edited whatever he wrote and frowned on contemporary writers
who got someone else to do this task for them. Critics who reviewed his
books had plenty to say about the subjects Ernest wrote about but
nothing about using words economically.
He started his career as a journalist in The Kansas City Star (a
newspaper in America) but quit after six months to devote all his time
to write fiction. Despite his short stay in journalism, he used the
journalists’ style guide of The Kansas City Star – use short sentences,
short first paragraphs, vigorous English, be positive and not negative –
to perfect his writing.
He was sent on the normal rounds that a rookie journalist is sent and
made to write on who did what, when, where and why. Hemingway was
bothered by the fact that journalists showed a lukewarm interest in
pursuing the ‘why’ aspect when writing news. This was one reason which
contributed largely towards his decision to switch from journalism to
He made giant strides as an author and gained quick and enduring fame in
the 1920’s through his book The Sun Also Rises. He was a man of action
and dedicated time in learning and studying anything that aroused his
When pursuing anything that he would later write on, he religiously
followed a principle that he practiced throughout his career. This was
never to write on something until he knew enough. He once said a
writer’s integrity was like a woman’s virginity – once lost, it can
never be regained.
Hemingway’s crowning moment as an author came in 1953 when he was
adjudged the winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his book The Old
Man and the Sea. He excused himself from accepting the award, citing ill
Close associates later revealed that he refrained from making it to the
awards ceremony because he believed these events hardly contributed to a
writer’s career. Hemingway believed that a writer would produce his best
work when he shunned the spotlight and led a lonely life.
It is 46 years since this great writer said goodbye to the literary
world. However, the name Ernest Hemingway still has the power to make
the present generation of writers look to his works in awe.
On my return
On my return I find
The way to Sivan Kovil
Pettah, 6 p.m. fresh faced
Boys strut, guns cocked,
Barbed wire defences, abandoned
Buildings, lonely alleyways
Settling down for nights
Rags pulled over for cover
People, homeless, prepare to sleep
Bells jingle, freed from slaughter
Cows breathe relief
I choke on camphor,
A priest prepares abishekam,
The crick crack of coconuts,
Juices of ripe fruit refresh
The tired traveller.
In Pettah, wonder when they’ll see
the Front. Bodies spliced from limbs,
Flesh moves with earth
Few return whole.
— Devi Arasanyagam