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.

Mr. 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 village.

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 ilau

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 shame-faced parents.
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 writing novels.
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 interest.
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 health.
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











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