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Sir Christopher Ondaatje’s                     

The Glenthorne Cat and other amazing leopard stories.

   Reviewed by Dirk Tissera                                                 

Distributed in Sri Lanka by Vishidunu Praskashakayo
There are four stories involving Sri Lanka in Sir Christopher Ondaatje’s extraordinary collection of leopard encounters in his new book The Glenthorne Cat, and other amazing leopard stories – exciting, mysterious and sometimes drawn from his own experiences as an outstanding explorer. The book also includes Honoré de Balzac’s masterpiece “A Passion in the Desert,” as well as Anna Kavan’s sensuous and drug induced Burmese fantasy “The Visit.” Other gruesome tales include Jim Corbett’s “The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudrapayag” and Kenneth Anderson’s “The Black Panther of Sivanipalli.” Carl Akeley’s personal battle with “The Wounded Leopard” is also told in all its dramatic detail.

However, it is Ondaatje’s mystically creative and sexually motivated story, “The Glenthorne Cat,” which really breaks new ground in wildlife narrative. The story could easily have been written by a young Guy de Maupassant, or even H.G. Wells, in one of his more imaginative moods. It is believable to a fault, and full of ghostly tension. Ondaatje’s knowledge of early Sri Lankan history and indeed, the very founding of the Sri Lankan race makes this unique story well within the realm of probability. It is even more surprising that the strange leopard encounter takes place on the windswept cliffs of Exmoor in North Devon where the author lives.

Director of The Royal Geographical Society, Dr. Rita Gardner writes in her Introduction: “I enjoyed this unusual book, despite the grisly interludes because I too share a fascination for wild cats and love of good storytelling – not to mention the dramatic photographs, mostly taken by Ondaatje, that put him firmly across the danger line. Wildlife enthusiasts and hesitant explorers alike will find this an intriguing read. What an adventure and what an experience!”

The late great explorer Samuel Baker who founded the town of Nuwara Eliya in the mid 19th century also recounts a ghostly leopard experience during his eight farming and hunting days in Ceylon, before he embarked on his epic search for the source of the Nile in Africa and Henry Storey’s famous and dramatic 1900 story “The Kantali Leopard” is also reproduced in full. There have been many gruesome leopard stories, however, Storey’s account is remarkable in that it is one of the few examples of a human surviving an attack by a leopard.

Finally, an extract from Ondaatje’s own classic, The Man-Eater of Punanai, reminds us again of the harrowing story of an exceptionally dangerous and audacious leopard that killed and devoured over twenty humans in the tiny village of Punanai on the Batticaloa railway line before being ambushed and killed by the English tea planter Captain Shelton Agar.

Princess Michael of Kent says of this book that, it is “strange, exotic, totally enthralling and not just for (big) cat lovers. Surely, this is the only anthology of leopard stories ever produced … an absolute triumph!” Indeed, Ondaatje’s stories are examples of nature narratives at their very best: concise, evocative and hugely entertaining. Every story is a demonstration of how subtle and satisfying adventure stories could be.
Dirk Tissera is Editor and Publisher of The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada.

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                                                                                                                                    Part three   

Preparing the setting

The SILENT woman is taken from Jean Arasanayagam’s latest collection of short stories “Dragons in the wilderness.” This is the last part of the story.

The setting, had first to be prepared for the women to come out and take their abode with their attendants to serve them - the nannies to look after the children. Cooks to prepare roast beef and Shepherds pie. Butlers with white gloves to serve at table. Valets to layout the master’s clothes and polish his leather boots. The bathroom cooly, the washerwomen, the gardeners. The rose gardens and trimmed lawns sprang up where once the rank forests had stood and the Englishwomen played croquet and sat under wide garden umbrellas entertaining their guests to tea. At the club there were Garden Parties, Club Nights, Empire Day functions, socials, dances. There were celebrations on festivals days like Diwali when the Hindu plantation workers lit thousands of lights. The planters too planned an evening at the club. They had elephant races, hackery races, the carts drawn by racing bulls.... The English wives in their evening gowns danced their polkas and waltzes.

The young women who had come out on the passenger liners were surrounded by their beaux. Those English wives were not silent women. Not hidden away. We were compelled to conceal our own mother in our lives. We were Eurasians but the dominant patriarchy was that of the Englishman.

How had our mother looked upon the man who had sired us? That man whose life, his past, his culture, his religion and language she knew nothing of? It must have hurt her deeply when he went away. I think the shock was too great for her. It was then that the tremors began to shake her body. Her submission concealed her grief. She must have wept in silence.

Living with women like my mother was an exploration of a very different world into which men like my father and the other planters entered. The unknown world of a woman’s body which belonged to another culture and civilization. It was perhaps like going into the very depths of the wilderness in search of game, rare plants and herbs. Butterflies whose colours stunned the senses; prehistoric insects and reptiles. Did they make their tracks through narrow gorges, steep and slippery rock, until they discovered those secret springs? With the gun in their hands? Or just a walking stick of stout jungle wood to push aside the choking, untrammeled, leech infested undergrowth aside?

That odour of leaves and crushed grasses, the gums and the resins, exuded by the trees, moss and ferns. It was a going back to those primeval beginnings in that untouched forest which yielded secrets that those men longed to search out. Even the feel of thorns and rough scrub that drew blood made them feel the thrill of pain awakening their senses which in that once temperate clime they had inhabited, had seldom or never been experienced.

There were these new maps to be chartered, making inroads into their lives. With the throttling lianas swinging against their bodies, whipping them with their strength, the tangled ropes of vines and creepers winding about their bodies, they felt the animistic presence of spirits dwelling within those ancient trees. Spirits that were displaced with the destruction by the axe that split the wood apart uprooting the trees, and then leaving the land fallow for a new harvest. Their bodies smothered in khaki suits, wearing their thigh - high boots and garters and puttees They felt the linen pressing into the skin impregnated with the moisture, the odours of the jungle. The tendrilling fens, mosses and lichens clung like a kind of caress to their moustaches and beards. They were enchanted. Transformed.

Their flesh now smelt of wood resin, termite -earth and the crushed leaves of healing herbs. The juice of wild fruit and berries touched their lips and tongues like the some of the ancient gods and goddesses. There was a primordial thrill in the loins set in motion with the stealthy movement in the undergrowth as the elephant herds, the leopard and the deer trekked in search of the rock pools thickly encrusted with lotus blooms, the dragonflies gossamer and iridescent skimming the limpid water, the water snakes gliding with the darting shapes of fish transparent with light, stirring ripples beneath the porous, pitted stones.

Wilderness

The wilderness engulfed these men, the birds set like jewels in the branches; butterflies bright as flowers flitting past, yet there was threat in the serpent sting, the fruit, unknown, its poison seeping into the blood. The skin was flayed by the thorny thickets. The passage of these men became subterranean as they penetrated deeper and deeper in search of both the sources of life and death.
Those men who had known this consummation with the forces of primeval nature could not contend with its enormous power. They could remain within the forest but it would mean a giving up of the familiar and unaccustomed way of life. They crept out, the flesh and skin, torn and grazed yet experiencing a strange sense of having penetrated into some magical places. They had been close to the gods, the goddesses from whose myths and legends power and strength would grow, spread, remain within the sacrificial stone inscribed with the symbols which only they could translate.

The puny ones could not endure to remain within the power of these vast self-inundating forces. They had to reject the life giving myth and continue on their missions, to colonize, to set their landmarks in those virgins forests, thousands and thousands of acres of forest. The elephant herds were shot and destroyed. The butterflies trapped. The wilderness tamed. Trees razed to the ground, orderly ranks of tea bushes planted. The seed in their nurseries proliferated. In the same way, the planters brought forth their human progeny. The women were fertile, their wombs secret and subterranean repositories of ancient secrets. The men, initiates in their rites and rituals.

Liaisons

Didn’t these liaisons constitute rape? It was for the woman to speak. But they were silent women. The jungle was raped. The vast forests cut down for the plantations. The trees groaned and wept. Their roots tore up the earth leaving huge yawning pits in which life, the alternate life, teemed and burrowed deeper away from the blistering sun. But the women still remained silent. The men penetrated deep into the very heart of a dense darkness, tumbled and perished in abysses, were swept away in the rushing flood. Yet the women were silent. But within .that silence there were a thousand voices. Ancient voices whose syllables sounded through the forest. At last they began to keen as the forest was cut down and they too wept with the falling trees, their roots wrenched apart out of the wounded earth.

And our mother’s voice. It was left to Cathy and myself to remember her words, her language and give utterance after all these long years to her remembered words. Words buried deep in our consciousness, concealed but never forgotten.

****

The Joys of Sex-A worldwide hit

In 2000, Alex Comfort died. Not a comforting thought for many, especially the British, for his 1972 book, “The Joys of Sex” became not just a British, but a worldwide hit.

I want to tell of this book because it is unlike so many other sex manuals, no tame affair. Lots of these old and even new manuals emphasise advice to brides and grooms. Alex Comfort was a doctor, poet, novelist and anarchist. He must have wanted to spread joy but there were the straight-laced, well­ I-never people who accused him of leaving to the world a legacy of brutality, egotism and sheer selfishness. And yet, I find “The Joys of Sex” quite a moral book, full of trust and commitment. The author holds up marriage as the ideal and warns readers not to bring an unwanted child into the world. In fact, despite its pretty raw disclosures, children [who are not allowed to read the book but keep taking sneaky peeks into it - millions of children in Britain, 1 am told] could really learn of some good old-fashioned values.

The thing is that Comfort has been bold, quite unvarnished and determined to lot it all hang out. But he did make his pile. Every middle-class couple in England has a copy, learning that there are more “facts of life” than they ever knew existed. Comfort’s message: “Sex should never be shameful!” His own unembarrassed enthusiasm for sex made his book a roaring success, for his readers did feel that the author had given them permission to enjoy themselves. It was even said that Comfort converted the British to sex!

Comfort was a keen student of every sexual whim and fancy. As he says in his book: “I joined an erotic commune where I would wander naked among coupling couples, take notes, study their many ways of copulation.” [He could have been like a lepidopterist with his butterfly net - and a highly professional one at that!] His opinions, too, are pretty much at the top of the scale. For example we have: “The use of the big toe is fun under restaurant tables.” To top it all, the book contains some pretty explicit illustrations - line drawings by a photographer, Charles Raymond, who took timed photographs of himself and his wife making love and turned them into superb line drawings. Millions of readers, in their comments - some too white-of-the-egg to be repeated here - could relate to the comfortable, middle-aged, most unglamorous people enjoying sex. As Comfort says, “Looks don’t count. It’s the sensation that matters. “He also pours scorn on the inhibitions of older people who restrain any sexual urge because they think they are past it. As he says, “Restraint at any age is bad for the health”

With the publication of “The Joys of Sex” many countries reported a remarkable rise in illegitimacy and teenage pregnancy, but since this book cannot be found here (I got it from a tourist on his way out of the island) I think the only negative point is that it encourages fickleness and promiscuity. No, we in this deiyange rata don’t want that because we already have it up to here! There are enough films on TV to tell us all about these ‘Joys” of sex when every casual meeting ends up in bed. We could also take a count of all rapes and ever-escalating “sex offences” that keep piling up here to also know that in this country, where even uncles and grandfathers rape little girls, there is not much joy at all! What is more, we have too many People with sad-sack faces getting all fired up over a perfectly human thing like sex and then bolting to the 100 to masturbate like hell because they have to be human but won’t admit it.

[PS: Amazon.com will sell you all the copies readers need. I’m hanging on to my copy, neatly disguised on a bookshelf, and since I have over seventy bookshelves, digging it up will be hard work. Also, let me give you a really beautiful bit of wisdom from Comfort: “Good unceasing sex, is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!”]

****