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The SILENT women

                            Part two   

The SILENT women is taken from Jean Arasanayagam’s latest collection of short stories “Dragons in the Wilderness.”

Sometimes the women were allowed to stay in the Big Bungalow. Sometimes the men went back home on furlough and brought back English wives. Then the concubines were no longer part of the life of the bungalow. The children, oftentimes, were sent to Roman Catholic colleges and convents, where they were in the boarding and hostels, having little or no contact with either parent. I had many such friends at the Girls’ Home. Millicent Clements and her sister Grace who married into another Eurasian plantation family were two of them. Millicent became a trained teacher like myself while her sister Grace spent her married life on estates which her husband had inherited from his father. There was Gertrude Thorpe too. When Gertrude grew old and retired from teaching, she who remained a spinster, went back to spend the rest of her days in the only true home she knew, the Girls’ home. Cathy would share my home when I married Dr. Edward Lorensz. And after his death we would remain together.

Sometimes the planters married the women who lived permanently in the bungalow. As the women grew older they were cared for and looked after by their children with great love and respect. The children were fortunate not to be separated from their mothers. But the casual liaisons? The women would come to the Big Bungalow but not remain there all the time. They would return to their own lives, accepted by their own people as if it had been the duty of these women to serve the grande seigneurs, the colonizers.

They remained the silent women. No records exist of their lives with the colonizers. The men they co-habited with. No written records. The only records were found in their progeny and with time, with death, loss, age and migration this race of people gradually came to be considered distinctive, a small group unique through their hybridity. I myself with my marriage allowed myself to be assimilated, superficially so, with another hybrid group, the Dutch Burghers.

My father did not deny me his name. That was an important signifier to my inheritance. But I wished, I wished very much that my mother too had been allowed to name us. She, I think had the greater right to do so. Her blood had nourished us and yet her name was not set on any memory stone. It was our mother’s name, like a secret, yet a sacred talisman, invisible against our hearts. My own heart was sometimes stony, cold, unfeeling with a sense of loss. A heart that became the tombstone to our parents memory.

I thought of the Englishwomen who came out to the estates, the wives of the planters. Were they tolerant, even complaisant, I wonder, about those relationships that their husbands had had with their mistresses? Relationships which could be terminated at will. The man pursued only the language of the body. And how much subtlety was practiced there? They had possessed the land with all its primeval myth and legend, its natural scents and fragrances, it gave them vast potential for exploration; for taming and subduing, for possession and for the secret thrill of the very source and spring of pleasure embodied in the bodies of the women they lay with. It was both license and freedom allied with a sense of power and bodily territorial acquisition.

And the planters’ wives? I moved with them freely after my own marriage. I had entrance to the exclusive Planters’ Club because of my husband’s social status. Not only was he the doctor well-known to the planters’ families in Bandarawela, but he also belonged to a highly respected Dutch Burgher family. It was a family that had its own Court of Arms, the Arms of Putland impaling Bligh, dating from the late eighteenth century. It bore a painting of elephants and a coffee plant and the words “Domine Dirige Nos”. 1 did not understand the language of herald’s’ but I did understand the Latin words “0 Lord lead us.” How significant those words were to that family, a God-fearing Methodist family, but originally what religion had my husband’s ancestors followed? A stern Calvinism in the Netherlands which had experienced the Protestant Reformation. My husband’s people were pillars of the Methodist Church and I was drawn into the church as a result of Fanny Cooke, the missionary and later, my marriage into the Lorensz family.

My mother however had remained true to her own faith.
She went to temple, listened to bana preaching and after my father had left, took ‘sil’ on poya days in the village temple. It was from her that Cathy and I had heard the Jataka tales, the re-birth stories of the Buddha ... my father had not been able to change that part of her1ife. Nor did he feel the necessity to do so. He had already set his plans.

Domine Dirige Nos -I was to follow a route, the destiny of which would be chartered by myself. My marriage had brought acceptance for me. I was the wife. My mother the concubine. But the lives of those planters’ wives? Their lives were lived accordingly to a pattern, one ordained by the status they occupied in a colonial society. Even the architecture of their bungalows with their spacious rooms, and the wood panelled ceilings accommodated their status. From those early days there are still prints to show us what life was like for the pioneer tea planters in their log cabins. In one of those books on tea what intrigues me is the food on the rough hewn table - a pastry pie, the edges fluted by the white turbanned cook cum butler who stands by the three planters as they prepare for a hunting day. In a corner of the room a pile of stag horns, relics of previous hunts. The shelves are covered with bottles, an oil lamp, a small hand mirror, hunting prints on the wall and a picture of a woman, a provocative one, long limbed, voluptuous, clad in the scantiest of clothes lying upon a couch. In the living room of the log cabin there was no space for an Englishwoman in those early days of tea planting.

Continued next week…

****

Vipulasena residents get ready for May Day

By Carol Aloysius
With three days to go for May Day, preparations to celebrate this all important event, have already peaked at Vipulasena Mawatha.

As in previous years, the residents of Vipulasena have allocated the arrangements to mark this special day for Workers, to Pancha and his motley band of help karayas.

Going by our previous experiences, we knew, we couldn’t have left them in more capable hands. Pancha’s May Day rallies have always been crowd pullers. Last year’s rally, was especially memorable, when Vipulasena residents led by Pancha had marched round the Lipton Circus, and the Vihara Mahadevi Park, protesting against uncleared garbage and unlit street lamps, at Vipulasena Mawatha, and the polluted Norris canal, which was a perfect breeding place for mosquitoes.

What attracted the crowds most, at these rallies were the comic skits, performed by the participants, dressed up for their roles, in appropriate costumes. These novel gimmicks were hugely popular, and added another feather in Pancha’s cap.

Pancha told us that, he would be promoting one of his pet projects, at this year’s rally: taking up the cause of “The Under-Dogs of Society.” They included; the scavengers, domestics, casual labourers, gardeners, drivers and all those, who fell into the category of the ‘informal labour sector’.

As he explained to us, “These non formal workers don’t enjoy any of the ‘Rights’ that their counterparts in the formal sector do, because they don’t belong to any Trade Unions. They don’t even know, their own Rights. If we don’t champion their cause, who else will?” he asked.

His campaign for these people, would be to obtain a minimum wage scheme, an annual bonus, over time, and some extra perks, such as getting half an hour off each day, to drop in for a cup of tea at Sarath’s kopi kade, to exchange the latest political gossip.
“Mama Vipulasena Mawathe inne evani ayath ekka muladi patan gannawa. Inpasu kittu paravalvala padinchivu ayata mevani udavuvak ena mayi dine, karanawa.” ( I will start with the workers down Vipulasena Mawatha. After that, I will launch a similar campaign, for those living in the lanes close by).

To find out, how many of these exploited workers lived down Vipulasena Mawatha, Pancha first visited the houses of all residents, who employed domestics, whether on a daily basis, casual basis or, as live-in domestics. He then proceeded, to obtain details of the chores, they performed, and the pay, they received. Having got this information, he divided the workers into three categories; those who were “Adequately Paid”; “Inadequately Paid” and “ Grossly Under Paid”

When he made up his final list, he was shocked to find out that, 80% of all domestics and casual employees of Vipulasena Mawatha, were “Under paid”, 15% were “Grossly Underpaid,” while a mere 5 percent were “Adequately Paid”.

To correct this flagrant violation of their workers’ rights, Pancha together with his new partner Piyasena, have compiled their own version of “ Workers Rights,” with some special concessions to the Vipulsena ‘under-dogs’. Copies of this were personally distributed, to all these workers, who were instructed to read the contents carefully, before the May Day rally.

They were also asked to come to his house, to rehearse their roles in the skits, he had written, on behalf of their Rights.
Pancha is now training his ‘papara band’ of street urchins, for his May Day rally. They will sing the special May Day song, he has composed, and will lead the procession of workers, with their home made instruments of tin whistles, flutes and wooden drums.
They are also making decorations, to hang along the lane, which include green, blue and red flags, to please all three major political parties.
Food and tea, for those participating in the May Day celebrations at Vipulasena Mawatha, will be provided free by ‘Kopi Kade Sarath’.

Come May Day, Vipulasena Mawatha will be transformed into a glittering spectacle of colour and action.
Pancha tells me, he has some new tricks up his sleeve, to entertain the large crowds expected at his rally. “ Meken senege adaganne puluvan vei. Balanne nona, ape mai dina reliya thamai, lankave hondama eka venne” ( They will be crowd pullers. Wait and see Madam. Ours will be the best May Day rally in the whole of Sri Lanka ),” he predicts, when I pass him, on my way to work…

****

‘Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy’

Reviewed by Carl Muller
Published by, Methuen, UK
pp.272
Price :Rs. 2000/-


When you have dipped into Eric Hansen’s well-shaken cocktail of three literary genres, the travelogue, the encounter with oddball characters, and the exposure of corruption in high places, you have a book that tells you, that the world of the orchid fancier, is as exotic as the plant itself. But this book also has a comic thriller air about it, and you will find that ‘plant politics’ could be a lot more gripping, than that of the unspotted, rootless variety!

Author Hansen should know. His book, “Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy” [Methuen, UK - pp.272], is a free-wheeling study of what he calls “the lunatic fringe of the orchid world” and he gives us a wry, affectionate portrait of people, who are virtually prisoners to orchids, in the way, the Dutch of the 17th century were obsessed with tulips.

Hansen knows his orchids. He once led an expedition through the jungles of Borneo, in search of the rarest orchids in the world. The book is highly entertaining and informative, and gives readers, and especially our orchid lovers, that orchids can be frivolous and funny, or sexy as hell. “They may be perfumed, gaudy, seductive or strait-laced, but they are fit for any occasion.” He quotes Charles Darwin, who addressed the delicate subject of mating orchids, in his 1877 book, “The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects”

“Nature has endowed these plants [Catasetum] with, for the want of a better word, sensitiveness, and with the remarkable power of forcibly ejecting their pollen, to a considerable distance. Hence, when certain points of the flower are touched by an insect, the pollina are shot like an arrow, not barbed however, but having a blunt and excessively adhesive point.”
As the author says, Orchids, men and sex are eternally intermingled.

Other interesting points:
(1) Skulduggery and treachery flourished in the great orchid hunts of the 1900s. Lies, deceit, imprisonment, disease and death.
(2) The Japanese aristocracy treasured orchids as ‘noble plants’
(3) Five hundred years ago in Yucatan, Emperor Montezuma drank a liquid ground from orchid fruits and cacao seeds before battle.
(4) The Aztecs believed that this drink made them tireless gladiators.
(5) The Spanish conquistadors took back to Europe, a concoction of chocolate, vanilla-flavoured, with ground orchid pods.
(6) The Chinese, hold orchids, as symbols of loyalty.
(7) In 1923, a French collector who insulted a native chief in Papua, because he was not guided to a spot where certain orange and black orchids grew, was clubbed to death.
(8) The rarest and only blue orchid in the world - Vanda coerulea - grows in Assam, India.
(9) ‘Blue Orchids’ was a hit song during World War II, penned by Hoagy Carmichel, and ‘Blue Orchids’ became the nickname for the US Force.
(10) The famous writer of Japanese haiku was a monk called Basho. He once described a flavoured orchid, thus:
‘Orchid - breathing incense into butterfly’s wings’.

In a more polemical vein, the author also sneers at the international convention, that forbids the transport of orchids, across national borders, for, as he says, “far from preventing pillage, the law only increases the black market price of plants.”

At Rs. 2000, this book could be as rare to my purse, as a rare orchid, but it is totally fascinating and a wonderful manual, that tells me now, how I should care for my own orchids, that I’m quite proud of, although, I know I’m far from professional. But that scarcely matters. Suddenly, there’s a clustering riot of flowers, and they last for weeks and weeks!

****