Living in Uva
Whenever I go to Passara to do my shopping, I find myself humming Bishop Heber’s hymn From Greenland’s icy Mountains.
What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.
Reginald Heber laboured indefatigably – not only for the good of his own diocese, but for the spread of Christianity throughout the East. He toured India, consecrating churches, founding schools and discharging other Christian duties. His devotion to his work in a trying climate told severely on his health. At Trichy in 1826, he had an apoplectic fit in his bath, and died.
Was Reg being a little unfair on Sri Lanka? Is man particularly vile here? It is true that whenever I venture out from my mountain retreat to do a little shopping I have to beware of looking up at the magnificent mountains lest I tread in something nasty or be hit by a jet of betel juice projected from a bus window. It is certainly not gold with which our streets are paved but, unlike in India, humans generally refrain from shitting in the streets. Cows, goats and dogs do not exercise such restraint.
Even in Greater Colombo, affluent suburbanites dump their effluent on the street and then complain that their neighbourhoods are infested with stray dogs, flies and mosquitoes. Dropping litter on the streets seems to be acceptable to most in Sri Lanka. Part of the problem is food vendors who dispense even liquid comestibles in polythene; tiny portions of lunu miris are dispensed in little condom-like packages which are then tossed on the ground. Stray dogs and cattle choke on plastic bags in urban areas as do deer and fish in rural surroundings.
The streets of most Sri Lankan towns are also littered with three-wheelers. We have to get Passara early in order to find a parking space. Getting there early might mean that we are too early for the booze shop which officially opens at 9 a.m. However, there have been occasions when I have managed to gain ingress at 7.30 a.m. to find there are already several determined fellows drinking strong beer from plastic bowls with a chaser of a naggin of arrack.
When we lived in Bandarawela, about an hour and a half’s drive from our present home, our water supply was metered, paid for and rationed. There were often periods when no water at all was available. After moving to Gonagala in 2003, we have never been short of water in our house but the nearby villages sometimes need to resort to bowsers to bring water in. A tributary of the Menik Ganga (Gemstone River) forms the boundary of one side of our acre.
Someone asked me if I missed the Cork rain. I said that I missed its moderation. Despite the droughts, here it sometimes feels as if the rain persists for 25 hours a day, 13 months a year. Even indoors, it feels a though we are living underwater. After heavy rains, our river roars like an angry god and during calmer times it sounds like human voices murmuring or a radio on low volume. The rain flushes out scorpions like prehistoric Humvees, centipedes like malevolent moustaches and swarms of suicidal meroos that provide fodder for frogs.
Our household water comes from the Namunukula Mountains. It is difficult to stomach Colombo water after this because it reeks of chlorine. The frequent and lengthy heavy downpours can make Namunukula water muddy, and there are numerous cattle, goats and monkeys to shit and piss in it, but we get it to a clear state by filtering it through a series of tanks and pumps and boiling it. The garden is always lush because we have set up a series of pipes and taps on all the terraces. Any surplus water flows back into the river.
Our house and garden are in the middle of a tea estate. After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta tea estate near Haldummulla around 7.30 a.m. on October 29 2014 and buried houses and people under thirty feet of mud. Cracks appeared in the ground and goats ran down the slopes just before the slide. Thirty-eight people died.
We did not suffer to that extent but many of our trees were uprooted and embankments crumbled.
Tea was first introduced to the island in 1824 at the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya with a few plants brought from China. In 1867, a Scottish planter, James Taylor, cleared 19 acres of forest in the District of Hewaheta Lower to plant the first seedlings in what is now known as the No.7 field of Loolecondera Estate. The crop is best at high altitudes of over 6,890 ft, and the plants require an annual rainfall of more than 39 inches.
This sounds like a recipe for disaster – clearing forests, which held the soil together, to grow a crop that needs heavy rainfall, which washes soil away. An academic study of the Uva plantations, focusing on Passara, concluded that poor management practices are responsible for severe soil erosion. The research found more abandoned lands in the Passara area than in other tea growing areas of the district. Another study argued that the land was compromised when planters cleared forests for tea and is further compromised when tea is cleared to make way for vegetables.
I do not need academics to tell me about erosion, pesticides and poor estate management. Since 2002, I have been surrounded by tea and have consumed vast lakes of the stuff. I have talked to many people connected with the tea industry: veteran estate managers, current young superintendents, brokers, labourers and pluckers. Many people seem to take a pessimistic view about the future of the industry. Retired managers visiting our home look at the tea fields abutting our property and remark on the abysmal state of maintenance and the poor quality of the tea bushes. Most estate roads are dilapidated as managers say they do not have the funds or labour to maintain them. We notice labourers in the field right next to us spraying chemicals. They are not wearing masks and they do not care about contaminating our water supply. We often see labourers hacking away at the roots that hold the soil together and scraping soil and rock from the embankments. It is no surprise when landslips block the main roads. Small inconveniences easily grow into disasters. Mother Nature fights back. The tea industry, legacy of the British Empire, after wrecking the landscape, seems to have entered a terminal decline.
St Patrick, where are you when we need you? You drove all the snakes out of Ireland – can you dispatch them from our house? I heard my wife scream from the bathroom. She had trodden on a ten-foot-long snake, which, distinctly displeased, slithered out of the house. I am told the garandiya is not dangerous – unless you happen to be a rodent. It is not venomous – but you wouldn’t welcome a bite from it.
Deadly serpents have been spotted in our Garden of Eden. The krait is a particularly unpleasant fellow, who has a habit of hiding its head under its flattened body, and concealing itself under piles of leaves. It has been known to indulge in cannibalism. You stop breathing if you don’t get rapid treatment for a bite. One night we were sleeping when our cat alerted us to the presence of a krait on our bedroom floor.
Another night we saw six baby serpents emerging from a hole in the wall near the kitchen door.
One day, I heard a susurration in the tea bushes two feet to my left and a spectacled cobra came towards me, fanning out its hood and staring. I stared back. We both made our excuses and left. My philosophy is, “if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone”.
In Ireland, we built fences to stop rabbits eating the lettuce. Here fencing will not stop the monkeys from the jungle eating our guavas. Our cousins the monkeys show typically human selfishness and destructiveness. I have seen a monkey sitting in our peach tree, fruit in each hand, both of which will be discarded half-eaten.
They pick avocadoes when they are still hard and then cast them on the ground in frustration. They are now eating the clothes pegs. I have seen the tiny intricate nests woven by tailor birds thrown to the ground by the monkeys, the eggs smashed to shards.
The borderline between man and nature is porous. Even in Ireland, it was not easy to impose order in our garden newly hewn from meadow. There rested and rusted a gate bought from a traveller, a barrier to deter errant sheep, a boundary to mark what we had bought from nature, human purpose stamped on wild fecundity. The gate disappeared in a tangle of thistles tall enough to look me in the eye.
Our vegetable production has not been so successful here as it was in County Cork. Apart from beans, we have not had much success in growing what here they call “English” vegetables. The soil is sandy and gets washed away due to erosion and heavy wind and rain. We have done our best to rearrange the flow of the water and to enrich the soil with compost and manure from our neighbors’ cattle. More about them in another essay. Suffice to say here that we have an ethical dilemma. We strongly suspect that the neighbors are engaged in illegal slaughtering. There is no doubt that they are exploiting animals in a way that is distasteful to us. They are generally a nuisance. However, they are there to stay and so are we, so accommodations have to be made. We give them foliage. They give us goma – shit.
Plenty of things grow without any effort on our part. Red hot chilis grow like weeds.
All around our Sri Lankan home, sun and rain bring lush abundance in myriad shades of green. Plants familiar in the west as tame houseplants – bromeliads, anthuriums, money plant, and amaryllis – are rampant in the wild. The plant sold in small pots in the west as cheese plant, monstera deliciosa, grows wild to a height of 100 feet with leaves big enough to shelter a family of monkeys.
Mother Nature invades the house itself. The other evening a gecko landed in my eye. On another occasion a baby rat landed on my head.
It rather disconcerting to observe that the sugar is on the move as huge red ants try to make their escape from the jar. I prefer my food to be immobile. I don’t much like the way, in another jar, evil little weevils are reducing the chick peas to gram flour. In the bathroom, mosquitoes the sizes of small helicopters emerge from the toilet bowl and swarms of wasps land on my head. In the shower, a small frog, the size of a mung bean, with big bulging eyes like Ray Bans, glares at me. A larger frog, warty as Robert Redford, leaps around the tiles.
Taking an improving tome from the shelf, I discover that I am holding only the spine in my hand and a pile of dust; armies of white ants are hurtling about the shelves carrying their eggs. The library ate my books. There are 67 accepted species of booklice in Sri Lanka. The scientific name for this order of insects is Psocoptera. They first appeared in the Permian period, 295–248 million years ago. Were there any books to devour then? They are often regarded as the most primitive of the hemipteroids. Many species live gregariously. Mating behaviour can be elaborate.
Sometimes hooligan elements of the rodent domain set up home as squatters in the car and eat various bits of foam and plastic. No doubt, they will soon set to work on something important like the brake cables. Small, but probably rabid, bats fly dangerously close to my face as we relax in the evening with a glass or two on the porch. Much larger sinister bats, hang like innumerable Christopher Lees from the Sapu trees.
During the day a serpent eagle rides the thermals looking for snakes full of frogs which are full of ants and flies. I think it may have its eye on the cat, which is full of geckoes. Huge skrawking crows circle doomily around the Muslim slaughterhouse next door. Large frogs hop about eating the flying ants. Coucals (of the subfamily Centropodinae and the genus Centropus). and snakes carry away the frogs for supper.
True darkness never descends on the bedroom. Fireflies blazon the night, roosting in my hair like stars. It is like trying to get to sleep inside a fully lit Christmas tree.
Lately, the sun has been intense but there is plenty of shade from the many trees in the garden. The house is built of black stone and has good ventilation so there is no need of AC and we rarely use fans.
In Ireland they have the term “blow-in”. According to a Hiberno-English dictionary it means a newcomer to an area, “someone who has been resident for less than 15 years”. When we settled in Sri Lanka from Ireland in 2002, we felt even more like interlopers than we had done in rural East Cork. In Colombo, we would attract little attention, but when we moved to our house in the mountains, we got strange, possibly hostile, looks as we passed through the nearby villages. This is one of the poorest areas of the country. Mine is the only white (or pink) face to be seen for many a mile. Even driving around in a clapped-out old car, we probably seemed rich, strange and privileged.
When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. A potential buyer seemed to be trouble – he moaned about the price and however much we lowered it, we could foresee him coming back in perpetuity to complain about the car’s defects, of which there were many. Our friend the high priest at the local Buddhist temple offered to buy the car as it would be helpful to take him to his clinic appointments and various official functions. When she was president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, offered him a new jeep but he refused. We refused his offer and gave the car to him free of charge.
That donation changed our lives for the better. Now, when we drive through the village everyone smiles and waves at us as if we were benevolent royalty. This is not because of any kind of magic. It is because the high priest has become a very dear friend. Some of the respect accorded to him has reflected upon us. On one occasion, I was the guest of honour at a temple ceremony carrying the relics on my head. At another I sat beside the local police chief and the speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament presenting prizes to schoolchildren.
When we visited the high priest on his birthday (he is now over 90), he showed us a greeting card he had received from the then Head of State, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He had also received a card from the then leader of the opposition and current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The president had also telephoned him to give him his good wishes in person.
After we donated our car it became a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put right many mechanical wrongs and spray-painted the car. He says how he can expect payment when we gave the car as a gift. Many little accoutrements and furbelows have been proudly added. A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.
I am not virtue-signaling here. I write this not to boast of my own saintliness but to demonstrate the effectiveness of direct active giving rather than passive charity or dependence on foreign NGOs. Richard Titmuss wrote in his book about blood donors, The Gift Relationship: “If the opportunity to behave altruistically – to exercise a moral choice to give in non-monetary terms to strangers – is an essential human right, then this book is about the definition of freedom.” Lewis Hyde has written that, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, people say: “you have to give to get”. It is as though giving creates a space for receiving. In Buddhism giving creates ping, or merit.
Sri Lanka is not an earthly paradise of happy smiley people as the guide books would have you believe. There were two uprisings by the Marxist JVP in 1971 and 1987. The JVP’s aim was to overthrow the elected government and enforce a Pol Pot-style return to basics. They operated with great brutality and were eventually defeated by government forces and paramilitary death squads using torture and summary execution. On another front the government forces were also trying to deal with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who set the standards of terrorist horror before ISIL came along. The Tamil Tigers invented suicide bombing. This is not the place to go into detail about those rebellions. Suffice it to say that 30 years of inconceivable violence must have left a scar on the national psyche. Sri Lankan newspapers seem to revel in stories of violent incidents day after day.
One day in September 2014, we were disturbed to see groups of men walking up and down the Gonakale tea estate road that looks down upon our house. Our security is fragile, dependent mainly on four dogs that can fool people that they are fierce. We learnt from our local news sources (gossiping neighbours, tea-bush telegraph) that the men were searching for 41-year old Alankaram Saraswathi, a teacher at Gonakale Tamil Vidyalaya, who had failed to return home on September 1. Soon afterwards, a news channel showed a video of the poor woman’s body being exhumed. They had the decency to blank out the actual body but it was sickening to see people climbing trees to get a good look. Police arrested the caretaker of a local Hindu temple and he was hospitalized “after attempting to commit suicide”. (Sri Lankan police brutality is the subject of another article.) The murder was committed after the victim visited the temple to get a ritual performed for her six-year old daughter. As I write, there is no further news on the fate of the arrested man.
Much of the violence reported in Sri Lanka is personal and petty – settling small, grudges or stealing small amounts. Former AFP journalist Mel Gunasekera was stabbed to death at her house in Battaramulla, on the outskirts of Colombo, in February 2014. The killer, who had previously worked on the premises, stole just LKR 1,200 (USD 10) and her mobile phone. That murder led journalist colleagues to pontificate about the nation being brutalised by long years of war and the callous methods used by governments of both main political parties. Other commentators objected to this view, saying that problems should be analysed and solutions sought without “a mindless trashing of our country’s socio-cultural fabric”.
Devolution of power in Sri Lanka is a contentious issue and discussion is generally focused on the virtues and drawbacks of giving more power to the Tamil dominated Northern Province. The reality is that all parts of the country are powerless compared to Colombo. I have lived in Ireland and England and in those countries too there is a huge divide between the metropolis and the rest of the country. London is a foreign country to someone living in Yorkshire. London is a country on its own dominated by financiers. However, in Sri Lanka people in Colombo refer to the rest of the country as “outstation”. During the Provincial Council election, Colombo journalists ventured out of their comfort zone to blink at the Uva natives like anthropologists discovering strange indigenous tribes previously hidden from civilisation.
I upset a few people on Facebook when I responded to an article about the takeover of Odel’s chain of stores by Softlogic. I wondered if the elderly ladies queuing up for water during our prolonged drought would be spending much time thinking about Odel founder Otara as a model entrepreneur and philanthropist. Surveys conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics show that poverty has increased in Uva Province despite poverty in Sri Lanka as a whole having significantly declined. According to those statistics, Moneragala is the poorest district and Siyambalanduwa in Moneragala is the poorest division.
Like other capital cities across the world, Colombo, gets its strength from many diverse and talented people being located together. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s major achievement was defeating the Tamil Tigers but there was also major infrastructure development work. I read a comment from a Rajapaksa opponent to the effect that only cossetted Colombans could believe that development had helped anyone apart from the fat cats in the capital. The commenter herself was a Colombo-dwelling former TV star. Well, I have lived since 2002 far from the fleshpots of Colombo and I can vouch that the quality of life out here in the outstation sticks has improved immeasurably. Nevertheless, that does not stop people wanting to better themselves by moving to Colombo.
Cheap labour was one of the essential ingredients of the success of the tea industry. Immigrant workers were bonded and underpaid. Serfdom ended in 1921 when workers were allowed to break ties to the estates; trade unions with political power helped improve wages. Nevertheless, poverty levels on plantations have consistently been higher than the national average. Overall poverty in Sri Lanka has declined in the last thirty years, but what poverty remains is concentrated in rural areas. Poverty in the estate sector increased, rising from 30 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2006/07. The welfare system within the estates and job security used to offset poor working conditions, but this no longer applies, as employment is no longer secure in the tea sector in Sri Lanka. Tamil workers are trying to better their lot by voting with their feet. This is making it harder for the tea estates to be viable and swelling the population of Colombo.
Many Sri Lankans have two homes, spending part of the year in Sri Lanka and part of the year abroad. Some of them remind me of Baudelaire’s prose poem N’Importe ou hors du monde. “Life is a hospital where each person is trying to change beds. One of them would like to suffer near the heater; another thinks he could get better near the window”. When they are in Sri Lanka, they wish they were abroad. When they are abroad, they wish they were in Sri Lanka. When they are in Colombo, they wish they were in the cooler climate of the hill country; when they are “outstationed” they wish they were in the metropolis.
A Sri Lankan once asked me what I missed about my former life. I missed live jazz at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, but I can listen to jazz at home. I missed seasons of classic movies at the National Film Theatre. I can arrange my own movie seasons with DVDs from Majestic City. I miss the long summer evenings of County Cork and the Murphy’s stout, but I can enjoy a Lion Lager watching the fire-flies. I miss McVitie’s plain chocolate digestives. I miss walnut oil. I once got a bit tearful listening to John Spillane singing The Land You Love the Best. None of this is life-threatening.
Often our heads are in the clouds. Our home is around three and a half thousand feet above sea level. Sometimes the clouds are above us. Sometimes the clouds are below us, swirling in the paddy-fields in the valleys. Sometimes fog creeps through the garden. Sometimes the mist heavies into a drizzle. Sometimes, often, the drizzle becomes a torrential downpour with violent thunder and lightning.
There are more trees than I can enumerate in this essay. The land just keeps giving us fruit. One year we had about a thousand avocados. Not much lately – the trees must be resting. The lime tree also seems to be taking a sabbatical but there are plenty of lemons. Other citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit and pomelos (although their skin is rather too thick). Plenty of papayas. We are now self-sufficient in bananas. We can grow our own coconuts. The pear tree has yet to yield fruit. There is the occasional pineapple. There are mulberries in the hedges. I wrote so eloquently about jak fruit (surprisingly, a member of the mulberry family) that one reader threatened to poke his own eyes out with an ice pick. Billings grow without our help – they make a good pickle. There are wild tomatoes – very small and full of flavor. A fruit know as tree tomato is eaten as a pudding – stewed with sugar.
The pomegranate tree got a bit tired and almost fell through the kitchen window but we propped it up and it is still providing fruit (mainly for monkeys). There is more than one jambu tree – small sweet crunchy fruit that look like capsicums. Our coffee plants have a wonderful fragrance like soapy orange blossom. Near the coffee plants down below towards the river are peppercorns. We rarely get to enjoy the guavas (although one can appreciate the jammy fragrance) and mangoes before the monkeys and squirrels but we are not begrudgers. The soursop usually goes to the monkeys, who are not tidy eaters – the dogs finish off what they have left.
The dogs love avocados and Silky usually takes one for herself and growls at anyone who dares to approach. Passion fruit makes a tasty juice with a touch of salt and lime.
The ecology of rural Ireland was disrupted by our cats. Disemboweled rats, wings of birds, headless rabbits, dead bats, littered our land. The pigmy shrew population was particularly hard-hit. I dreaded the day Lucy would drag a whole sheep through the cat flap.
Here under Namunukula, huge skrawking crows circle doomily around the slaughterhouse next door. A serpent eagle rides the thermals looking for snakes full of frogs which are full of ants and flies. I think it may have its eye on the cat which is full of geckos.
Our Irish cat Mimi is fussy about what we feed her but won’t hesitate to bite the head off a rat. The dogs live a life of indolence but kill for sport and sheer badness. The dandu lenas who build nests all over our garden have an anxious enough life avoiding the black eagle that swoops down on the eucalyptus trees. The two younger dogs, les enfants horrible, have chewed up more than one lena baby that lost footing in the treetops.
No mongoose is safe from the dogs’ marauding natures. They get particularly savage with civet cats. We fear that Mimi will suffer a civet’s fate – she is in her nineteenth year and not as nimble as of yore.
Les enfants horrible were kicking up an awful row one night. In the morning there was a chewed-up civet cat on the driveway; by its mouth was a small chewed-up mouse.
The phrase ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ is often quoted by people who do not have any idea where the line originates. People who do quote it generally assume that it gives support to the view that the non-human world is cruel, mindless and dangerous and that man’s civilized qualities have set him above the savagery of the animal kingdom.
Far from giving support to the view that man is top of the hierarchy of beings, it seems to me that Tennyson is saying that we delude ourselves if we think we are any better than other animals. We are born. If we are lucky, we survive and have a healthy life (‘finding that of fifty seeds/She often brings one to bear’). We suffer. We die. We are buried. We turn to dust. We are essentially the same as other animals. You could take this as a bleak view. You could, on the other hand, take it as a good argument for compassion and love for all beings. We are all in it together.
Tell that to our dogs!
Bob Dylan sang, “Pity the poor immigrant/ Who wishes he would have stayed home”. Don’t pity me, Bob. Whatever about my unhealable outsider-dom (I will never be a fan of contemporary cricket, I will never be fluent in Sinhala or Tamil) my lights are on and I am at home. I last left Sri Lanka in 2006. England and Ireland are unreal to me now. I have no desire to go anywhere.