De Niese Bay stretches before us in a gentle curve, its calm and shallow waters lapping at our feet. At the end of the curve, the sea and the lagoon meet like two lovers who have been shadowing each other. The bay and the lagoon run parallel to each other, separated only by the beach and a strip of scraggly bush. Anyone walking along the beach will stumble upon the lagoon if he happens to glance away from the sea at the right spot. Peeking through a clearing in the bush like a blue jewel, it produces a curious doubling effect. It is like seeing a calmer and bluer twin of the sea. The lagoon isn’t the only reward you get for peeking into the bushes though. We saw a swamp, all grey and marshy with a scattering of migrant birds who had come to breakfast on the buffet of nutrients.
De Niese Bay is named after Elgin de Niese, a Sri Lankan Burgher excise officer, who had his posting in the Eastern Province in the 1930s. Upon retirement, he bought land in Vakare and settled down to farm. He called his acres Tranquillity Estate. The estate passed from Elgin de Niese to his son Morris de Niese and then to the third generation, to Susan de Niese who with her husband Somachandra Hettiarachchi own and manage Tranquillity Coral Cottages.
Today five years after the war, five quaint cottages of varying size blend into the sun- drenched landscape, serenaded by the sea. To live in one of them even for a day is to fall under the spell which must have drawn Elgin de Niese to the land and inspired its name ‘Tranquillity’. This is a land with character. It has withstood terror, bloodshed, devastation and tragedy until today it dozes under the sun, as tranquil perhaps as it was in Elgin’s day.
Ours is the smallest and the most rustic cottage just nodding distance from the sea. As the day goes on, the sound of the sea becomes less and less as the water gets calmer and calmer. At the other end of de Niese Bay is an island standing on a dead coral reef. One day around noon we stepped into the sea and walked towards the island, the water rising barely to our chests. In the evening when the tide is up, the sea is so high that you can only cross by boat.
By 1986, the whole Eastern Province was under the sway of terror. An armed group came one night, tied Elgin’s son Morris de Niese to a tree, assaulted him and his household, robbed the house and told them to leave immediately. They went. Not for good though. While Morris de Niese and many of his children migrated, one daughter Susan married Somachandra Hettiarachchi from Kalutara and settled down in Colombo. It was their tenacity bolstered up by a consistent supply of ideas and encouragement from Morris de Niese in another continent, which helped keep the precious acres along de Niese Bay within the extended family. With a jovial smile, Hettiarachchi explains to us how he kept coming back whenever an outbreak of peace enabled it. Once, he recalls coming in a tank with the Army. Whenever it was possible members of the de Niese clan from around the world would gather for prolonged family reunions on their ancestral land. It went on until 2004.
It’s a lovely evening in 2015. Under the mellow sun we float silently past the mangroves, the only sound coming from the gentle splashing as the oar dips into the still waters of the lagoon. Egrets and kingfishers dart in and out of shaded islands formed from mangrove roots. The mangrove root beds are the breeding ground of many species of fish and the leafy darkness draw all kinds of birds. The mangroves are denuded now, just a narrow strip, cleared to make way for farming and the waters are overfished. Local people scooping the fish, and crustacean hatchlings off the mangrove roots with their hands is a common sight. Even so it is still a place of such magical serenity.
Our boatman is Sunil. He works for Mr. Hettiarachchi, patrolling the beach and grounds at night. His mother used to be the cook. On Boxing Day 2004, she and her daughter, Sunil’s sister, heard the sea roaring like a bulldozer. They saw the giant wave rushing towards them and climbed a Palmyra tree to escape. The tree saved the mother, but the sea claimed the daughter. The Tsunami swept away lives, trees, crops and all the buildings on the de Niese land, including their four-roomed bungalow. Mr. Hettiarachchi remembers rushing from Colombo to Vakare carrying 200 rice packets and only finding around 100 people to give them to. He picked up a man on the way bleeding all over, who had climbed a Palmyra tree to escape the wave only to find it full of snakes, who had also swarmed up the tree to escape.
The land took a long time to recover. The soil still won’t support big trees like teak and all crops grow much slower than before. Still it’s green and fertile enough. Some of the vegetables we eat come from the garden. As we sit down to eat in the common dining room of the main building, we hear the caw of the roosters and the clucking of hens, who produce the eggs for the omelettes we eat for breakfast. The meals are extraordinary at Tranquillity. We hardly ate a meal without praising the cook.
As the only Sinhalese entrepreneur for miles around with longstanding family ties to the land, our host stands out even as he fits in. The Army has helped him enormously. When the East was freed from the LTTE, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the area, Mr. Hettiarachchi was introduced as the only Sinhalese private individual in the region. He was asked what issues if any he had and was sincerely able to affirm the absence of ‘issues’ except a power supply. As a result, he got power much earlier than it would have reached the area in the course of things. If mainline electricity was something he got for standing out, his staff are his reward for ‘fitting in’. Well trained and helpful, they are all Tamil and are all recruited from the area.
Cows branded in Tamil graze the land up to the very edge of the beach. The East may arguably have the only coasts in mainland Sri Lanka where the grass grows right up to the beach, unbroken by beachside construction. The sun goes down in a blaze of gold. The local Muslim women chaperoned by their menfolk frolic sedately on the beach, hijabs well in place, the churidars of their shalwars not rolled up even an inch.
The clouds steal the last glow of the sun and turn it into wisps of orange. The color drains slowly from the landscape. I remember the magical Kayunkerny reef we had explored that morning. The boat and the snorkelling gear were supplied by Lal. A Sinhalese from Kurunegala, he had followed the sea to the East in search of colored fish, and decided to stay long before the war showed any signs of ending. The reef was not the continuous blaze of color we had expected. The grey of dead coral intervened here and there. Still, coral reefs are resurgent, just like the human spirit. In time, the dead parts of the reef will grow back.Tranquillity Estate too has bounced back. After 50 years of turmoil de Niese Bay has become tranquil again and there is still a de Niese in possession.
We explored the magical Kayunkerny reef
Here the meals landmark the day
Cottages blend into the sundrenched land
The unique world of the lagoon and mangroves