Not the Royal Wedding

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We didn’t get an invite to Harry and Meghan’s bash but we did get to our first Sri Lankan wedding last Saturday. Our housekeeper Rani’s sister, Gowri, was getting hitched and Rani was very keen that we attend. So on with the best tropical suit, only to discover that in the years since it was last used (a) my waistline had grown so the trousers were very squeezy (b) a mysterious stain had appeared on one sleeve of the jacket, requiring the attention of the dry cleaners. Undaunted, holding jacket over arm and doing breathing exercises, I headed off.

We’d been invited to both the church service and the reception (the family are all Tamil Christians) but our suspicions that the service would be conducted in Tamil proved correct so we told Rani and her husband Martin there was little point in going to the church. “No”, insisted Martin, “If you are there the pastor will do the service in English”. “But then almost no-one else will understand it” we replied. “Ah, there will be a person to translate into Tamil.” Not wanting to be put in the position of making life difficult for the vast majority of non-English speakers who would be there we politely but firmly declined the church bit of it. Though a bit of me would have liked to have gone, just to see what a Tamil Christian service was like. I’ve recently traced a distant relative who was a Methodist missionary in Ceylon from 1936 to 1970 and read something she published which unwittingly explained how the missionary movement simply took on local customs and traditions and convinced the people that these were in fact Christian religious practices. As of course the early European church did with pagan rites such as the winter solstice.

Being British we arrived at the hotel – a gloomy and cavernous pile temporarily transformed with drapes, lighting and flowers but where as always the toilets indicated the underlying reality of the building – ten minutes early for the reception. We assumed we’d wait somewhere until the party arrived from the church up the road but we were ushered into the reception room as if we were the focus of attention. We spent a short while observing various technicians doing their stuff with music and lights before the newlyweds entered via the staircase with a vast retinue and the reception began.

In a standard UK wedding reception there is alcohol followed by interminable speechifying followed by food then more alcohol and dancing. A Sri Lankan wedding reception, based on this sample of one, dispenses with all but the third element in that list. No booze. No speeches. No dancing. But there was plenty of food. Eating aside, the reception consisted of putting the happy couple through an ordeal by camera. Official and unofficial photographers armed to the teeth with anything from simple mobile phones to kickass lenses forced the couple to pose for what seemed like hours, sweating and grinning under the lights, as every conceivable combination of guests took their moment in the spotlight with them. Given that a week or so beforehand they had had to undergo the “pre-wedding shoot” in some local beauty spot to provide mementos to hand out to the wedding guests and that a couple of days later they would be subjected to more photographic oppression when they had their “homecoming” one really understood the level of commitment it must take to get married in this country. At least in between they would have a couple of days’ honeymoon, but I seriously would not be surprised if there was a photographer on hand in the bridal bed to record the first night of bliss.

 

 

Three wheels good

Time for more tuk-tuk wisdom. All the following have been added to my collection since the start of the year, mostly in Kandy. Is there no end to their inventiveness? And does anyone out there have any idea what they might mean? My favoured explanation is that many three-wheeler drivers are members of a secret society bent on world domination and use their vehicles to pass coded messages to one another.

ONLY DO WHAT GOUR HEAUT TELLS YOU. Gour Heaut is presumably the Supreme Leader of the cult.

DON’T PLAY WITH ME. YOUR DEATH WILL CONFIRM.

YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON YOUR HAND. Not your heart or your brain, then? However…

A BIRD IN THE HEAD IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH. One might ponder the various alternative meanings of ‘bird’, ‘head’ and ‘bush’ here.

DON’T BE A TWAT ALL YOUR LIFE (driven by a white woman)

SHOW YOU MY ANGLE. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. But who has the right angle?

THE WORLD HAS NOT CHANGED. THERE IS JUST LESS IN IT. In other words, it has changed.

GOD RIGHT HIM THAT KEEPS SILENCE. A handy one to use when under interrogation following capture.

LOVE IS NOT SURE. BOOT IS FULL SURE. Could you run that one past me again, please?

As ever, thank you for your kind attention.

Jerry

 

 

 

Superstition

The central character in Ashok Ferrey’s The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons leads a difficult dual life between England/the west and his ancestral Kandyan home. The former dominated by rationalist materialism, the latter by superstition. I can’t claim to be quite so conflicted but I do empathise to some extent. I sometimes wonder what drove me to call home a land where rational thinking takes a poor second place to belief in the supernatural. Where planning is always trumped by fatalism. Sally tells me I’m not an atheist but an agnostic, since I cannot prove there is no god, and she has a point. But in seven decades on this planet I have yet to see a shred of evidence that there is a supernatural being (or beings) which gives a flying fart about either me in particular or humankind in general. Plenty of things I’m unable to explain, for sure – and many of them science remains unable to explain. But even if science never makes it that far, there is no reason to worship something just because it’s awesome and unexplained. There is no such thing as divine intervention or a divine agenda, of that I am certain.

All of which places strict limitations on how close I can get to almost all Sri Lankans (and, of course, a whole lot of religious folk from my own culture, however much I may like and admire them). As readers of Broke’n’English may recall, when we started building Jungle Tide we were mystified to get a rare e-mail from our architect, a British-educated, western-dressed middle-aged man, informing us that he had made an overnight journey from Colombo to the house site to lay our foundation stone at something like 4am as this had been determined to be the auspicious time. Given the subsequent problems we’ve had with the place, I hate to think what might have happened had the stone been laid at an inauspicious time, but let that pass.

Determining the right time for things to happen is an obsession here, and at no time is this a greater obsession than at Tamil and Sinhala New Year which is now upon us. (The Tamils and the Sinhalese do not agree on much but at least they agree when New Year is, which I suppose is comforting). Two years ago we and some friends were staying at a hotel near Anuradhapura at New Year and were invited to participate in the festivities, involving much lighting of lamps and consumption of festive foods. In the background a TV was showing the usual countdown to the crucial moment, familiar to us on 31st December, except here three or four countdowns were going on simultaneously. Countdowns to the auspicious moments to light candles, to serve kiribath (milk rice), and a couple of other activities I never managed to fathom. I found myself musing on who has the right to determine these auspicious moments. The Buddhist high priesthood? But Tamils are mainly Hindu and operate to the same timetables as far as I could tell. And in any case, if the history of any world religion is anything to go by, deep schisms would surely erupt as rival factions interpreted the relevant signs to suit their own purposes and came up with different auspicious times. The government? Maybe elections are fought over whether the UNP or the SLFP is best at telling the time.

Horoscopes are consulted not just to tell the time but to check whether a person is the right one to marry. And unlike any horoscope I’ve ever read in the British popular press, or indeed unlike any tarot reading I’ve come across, the findings always seem to be clear and indisputable. The daughter of a guy who used to be one of our drivers was in a relationship with an Australian who the family regarded as quite a catch – but on checking out the horoscopes he was reluctantly but firmly rejected as being unsuitable.

Yakas (demons) are everywhere in this land, and measures need to be taken to protect against them. They particularly go for half-built houses and, given the local propensity to build places as high as the available money will stretch, then stop until more is raised, the yakas have a lot to go at. The solution – to hang dummies from poles atop the half-completed buildings so that travelling around Sri Lanka is a bit like being in an endless version of those village scarecrow festivals which have lately become so popular in England. Some of the dummies are crude and simple but others are dressed in jacket and tie, perhaps an indication that western culture is more effective at curtailing the activities of demons.

Before reading Ashok Ferrey’s book I’d been unaware of the mobility of yakas. They don’t just hang around and haunt a particular place as our more staid British ghosts do but travel relentlessly about the countryside, making them much harder to counteract. In a (literally) lightbulb moment I realised that this probably explains why Sri Lankan drivers keep their right indicator lights permanently on. It keeps the yakas of the road at bay.

Superstition is strongest in the villages and among older people, but it’s far from dying out. My friend Jim told me recently of a village funeral attended by one of his staff. Prior to the funeral the local priest had undertaken a search of the grounds of the deceased to seek clues as to the cause of death (yes, they do also have doctors and death certificates out here, but belt and braces applies to matters of such moment). Some rusted metal items were dug out and declared proof that someone had intended evil to befall the deceased. Moreover, continued the priest, the findings were also proof that vengeance would be wreaked on the evil-doer within nineteen days. Two weeks later Jim’s man’s grandfather died and he took this as the priest’s prediction coming true. Quite why anyone would come to this conclusion among all the many other possible (and more probable) reasons for granddad’s death is utterly beyond my comprehension.

Among the hosts of yakas a few top the Mount Olympus of yakadom, as it were. The Devil Bird (Ulama) brings doom to all who hear its terrible wailing deep in the forest (it’s probably just an eagle owl but let’s not spoil a good myth). A Kinduri is a kind of radical feminist yaka in the form of a pregnant woman who deals death to randomly selected men. The Riri Yaka is a four-armed, monkey-faced little chap who rides a pig and carries with him, among other things, a rooster and a parrot. Probably a Norwegian Blue. He certainly seems to belong more to the leftfield humour of Monty Python than to any religious belief system.

Yakas with at least some claim to authenticity, though, are the Nittaewo. There is some anecdotal historical evidence of the existence of a tribe of small human-like creatures in Sri Lanka until comparatively recent times – maybe survivors of either Homo Erectus or Australopithecus. The Veddha – the aboriginal human inhabitants of Sri Lanka – claim to have wiped out the Nittaewo in the 18th century. But rumours persist of more recent sightings, including a gruesome tale of a Government official being attacked and dismembered by one in a tea estate not far from here. On the other hand, all kinds of humans have good reason to dismember Government officials…

Which bring me to the other more authentic yakas – the Grease Yakas. I first came across these characters in a bewildering press report a year or so ago. The headline: “Grease Yaka resurfaces in Bataramulla following Cabinet re-shuffle” has got to rank as one of the best non-sequiturs of all time. Grease yakas are naked men who grease themselves up and roam the streets at night, sometimes assaulting women. Why they do this I have yet to see explained. And I have absolutely no idea why a Cabinet re-shuffle should engender this response. In a just world they would all be wiped out by Kinduris.

And so, finally, to matters medical rather than fatal. I don’t have a strong take on ayurvedic versus western medicine – my guess is that both are effective in different ways and sensible folk should make use of both rather than arguing for the dominance of one over the other. But I part company with those locals who believe that illnesses are caused by a band of eighteen demons responsible for everything from deafness to insanity by way of flatulence. The other side of the coin is the twaddle dealt out to tourists by the proprietors of the rash of “Spice Gardens” who insist that their herbal remedies can cure everything from baldness to diabetes. If this were true then Sri Lankans would enjoy wondrously long life expectancy, which they manifestly do not. But that, I guess, is because of all those malevolent demons. Against superstition and religion we rationalists just can’t win. Better get this posted, Friday 13th is coming up!

(Thanks to Jim Aitken for suggesting the topic and providing some of the material. Sorry if I’ve misconstrued any of it!)

As luck would have it

By Sir N Dipity

We’ve just had a little tour with our friend Charlie, visiting from England. Travels with Charlie – Steinbeck got there first of course but his was spelled differently and was a dog. (I could go on – Charlie and the Tea Factory, for example – but I’ll spare you). As ever in Serendip various fortuitous things happened, some of which I shall now relate.

In the ersatz-English hill town of Nuwara Eliya, while Sally and I slept off our lunchtime Lion Lagers (or G&T in her case), Charlie took himself off for a stroll around town, ending up at the splendidly decrepit racecourse at the end of town just as a thunderstorm broke. Soaked to and possibly beyond the skin a local guy took pity on him and invited him into the creaking grandstand where he was treated to an unofficial backroom tour of the whole place, reeking of past colonial splendours. Warming to his task the guy then offered inside information on upcoming races in return for placing a bet, and a ride on a racehorse. Charlie sensibly declined both offers.

A few days later we reached the furthest extremity of the Kalpitiya peninsula where our primary aim was dolphin-watching. Sally and I had tried this once before only to be turned back by a maritime picket-line stood a couple of hundred metres out to sea. This was to do with a fishermen’s strike over police brutality; ironically the pickets threatened something similar to our boatman and his brother should they attempt to cross. Being good trade unionists as well as feeling some responsibility towards our hosts we agreed to return to shore.

This time there were no pickets, but a fleet of tourist boats. Sri Lanka has changed quite a bit since our previous foray five or six years ago. The boats are simple open launches with powerful outboard motors. They need pushing to get out to sea over the sandbanks but once properly afloat they go like rockets. Our boatman turned to face the shore and crossed himself before turning the motor to full power, which was only slightly disconcerting. All seafarers in Sri Lanka are Christians for some reason I’ve yet to fathom, so to speak. A brisk northerly was blowing as usual down the Palk Strait fuelling the numerous kite-surfers hurtling along the coastline and breaking the ocean up into large, choppy waves over which we bounced in a vertebra-crushing, bum-hammering fashion for over an hour before finding some dolphins. Some? Actually in quantities only previously known on Blue Planet. Surfing, leaping and spinning all around us.

In the afternoon our driver took us into Kalpitiya town, which the Rough Guide  accurately describes as having “a watery, end-of-the-world feel”. The town has one of Sri Lanka’s many Dutch forts but this one is still in military use as a naval base and permission has to be obtained to have a look around, accompanied by a cheerful but armed guard. Some buildings have been given tin roofs and brought back into use as store sheds or even accommodation. Sailors’ laundry hangs out to dry among the ruins and the skeletons of two blue whales have been erected on the battlements for some unaccountable reason.

On the way back to our hotel we asked the driver if he knew where the road led beyond the hotel. “To the beach, I think. Do you want to go?” We did, and since the road was named Beach Road this seemed plausible enough. But after meandering through a village the road petered out on a stretch of grassland by a lagoon. We were about to turn back when a portly woman emerged from a house painted in an unlikely combination of lilac and lime green and said: “Oyster farm?” We soon realised that these were her only two words of English but with our driver’s help we discovered that this was indeed an oyster farm, a family-run business aided – or so a sign in Sinhala seemed to suggest – by funding from a Danish NGO. Did we want to buy some oysters? Only thirty rupees each (less than 15p). We decided to go for it and see if the friendly hotel staff would deal with them for us. But there was no shed with a refrigerator and oysters on ice; this was a matter of catching them first. They don’t move very fast, granted, but they are good at disguising themselves as stones in the muddy lagoon bottom. So out came the family, some to gawp at us but the two older girls and two women to seek out our starters using their bare feet in the mud. Stone, stone, oyster, stone, oyster… Eventually we had amassed the dozen we’d ordered which were cleaned and paid for,and we headed back to the hotel where the chef was more than happy to prepare and present them to us in advance of our dinner. So let’s give the hotel a namecheck – the Blue Whale – highly recommended if you ever find yourselves at the further end of Kalpitiya.

That was the highlight, but in what remained of the trip we took two safaris in Wilpattu national park and saw a leopard on each occasion – I’ve visited Wilpattu seven times previously without seeing any. And on our way home detoured to Ritigala Forest Monastery by means of satnav which took us via dirt tracks rather than the regular tarmac road. And gave me my first encounter with a Tikpolonga a.k.a. Russell’s Viper, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. Fortunately this one was roadkill. As for Ritigala, well its stupendous beauty defies my powers of description. Go see it for yourself.

Independence Day

Sri Lanka has just celebrated seventy years of independence from us Brits. You might expect such a notable anniversary to be accompanied by massive celebrations across the island but most of this kind of thing happens in Colombo and consists of the usual military showing-off. The day before National Day (Independence Day) on 4th February I asked a tuk-tuk driver whether there were any celebrations planned in Kandy. “Maybe one meeting, sir” he replied. “That’s disappointing on such an important day” “Not for me sir. I think everything better if the British come back.” Not the first time I’d heard this sentiment but usually it comes from older people not young tuk-tuk drivers. I made a bland comment about the British having done some good things and some bad things which elicited no response.

On the day itself I went for a walk in the hills with our friend Charlie who is over here at the moment. On the road back down to Jungle Tide we were passed by a succession of tuk-tuks adorned with large national flags, just driving around and shouting cheerfully at everyone they passed. “Good morning, sir!” they exclaimed and waved as they went on their merry way. Charlie mordantly commented that it was a little surprising to hear Sri Lankans addressing white men as “sir” on their Independence Day.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex did come over for the events. They even managed a side trip to Kandy and went around Peradeniya Gardens in a golf buggy but their busy schedule prevented them coming for afternoon tea at Jungle Tide. An official communique from the Ministry of Information described the Guest of Honour as “HRH Prince Edward, the Duck of Edinburgh”.

Of more significance has been the local elections, held on 10th February. As a former local government employee and a local democracy junkie I have mixed feelings about the Sri Lanka local elections. A mixture of envy and fear, to be precise. Envy that local government is taken seriously; fear that elections can be used as an encouragement to inter-communal strife. Some weeks ago we were shopping in Kandy where the traffic was even worse than usual. The city was log-jammed on a midweek morning. We asked our driver what was happening. “Ah, sir, this is elections.” “But the elections aren’t until February!” “Yes, this Nomination Day”. In the UK nomination to stand in a local election consists of scraping together a few signatures and taking a form into the council’s offices where it is no doubt briefly scrutinised and filed. Not in Sri Lanka. Each candidate turns up with busloads of supporters and a fleet of tuk-tuks crammed with yet more in order to present their forms to the officials. The assumption being that the officials are likely to be in the pay of a rival party and may rule the nomination forms invalid unless there is a show of force to suggest what might be the consequence of such a decision.

But the elections seem to have passed off peacefully. And I don’t intend to comment on the results…

My Favourite Football Joke Ever

Mention of S T Coleridge reminded me of my Favourite Football Joke Ever. Two fans of struggling clubs from the lower divisions are comparing the deficiencies of the teams they support.

“We call our goalkeeper ‘The Ancient Mariner'”, says one. “What, he used to be a sailor?” “No, not as far as I know.” “Why, then?” “Because he stoppeth one of three.”

Do not disturb

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge had lived in Sri Lanka he would not have even started Kubla Khan. I doubt he would even have had time to get a decent fug going on his opium pipe. Life here is a procession of Persons from Porlock and getting anything done without interruption is nigh impossible. I only managed to write Broke’n’English by retreating with the laptop each morning to sit in the pavilion by the swimming pool. The sixty five steps down from the house were usually sufficient to deter all but a few genuinely important interruptions. There I would resolutely remain until I had achieved what I set out to do for the day. After all, that’s what Proper Writers are supposed to do, is it not? Think of Roald Dahl’s garden shed, Dylan Thomas’s boathouse. Though J K Rowling, being a woman and therefore not entitled to a shed, had to make do with the public environment of a Morningside cafe, which makes her all the more admirable in my opinion.

Sadly, now the book is finished such indulgences are no longer permitted by management and I have to focus on the day job of running a guest house. Having sorted out three sets of people’s transport for the day, settled up with the ones who are leaving, updated the accounts and cleared away the breakfast dishes, maybe a chance to write something?

Martin, our housekeeper, scurries in: “Sir. CEB bill now coming”, and hands me the outcome of the latest electricity meter reading. Five minutes later he’s back. “Sir, now coming one man, he needs to talk.” “Who is this man, Martin, What does he want?” “Sir I do not know.” Turns out he owns another property in the area and wants to know if we are selling Jungle Tide. The fact is he’s no more interested in buying than we are in selling, but Sri Lankans have endless curiosity and it is only polite to show him around. Another half hour wasted.

Just got back to the blog and the phone rings, located in neutral territory on the dining table (Sally is in the kitchen, I’m on the veranda). “Darling, can you get that? I’m up to my elbows in bread dough”. It’s a guy speaking in Sinhala who I pass on to Rani, Martin’s wife and our other housekeeper. As suspected he’s a driver for some guests arriving tomorrow and wants to know how to get here. The guests have already passed on the directions I sent them but the driver needs it from the horse’s mouth, or at least Rani’s mouth.

Half an hour passes uneventfully. Half an hour of writer’s block (or, if you prefer, bloggers block). Martin is back in: “Sir, Grama Server”. The Grama Server (properly titled Grama Sevaka) is the equivalent of an English Parish Council Clerk but vested with real local significance. His signature is needed on countless official documents and it pays to be in with him. We have had three of them to date, all really friendly and as far as I’m aware not corrupt, but it is still best to offer them tea and biscuits and a chat when they call in unannounced. Another half hour gone.

The phone goes again. Sally answered the last one so it’s my turn, I guess. “Hallo, Jungle Tide?” “Yes, this is Jungle Tide. How may I help you?” “Jungle Tide?” “Yes, how may I help?” “You have guest house?” “Yes, we are a guest house”. “You have rooms?” Tempting though it is to say that we are a guest house which does not have rooms I bite my lip: “Yes, we have rooms. How many you want? What date?” “You have rooms tomorrow night?” “Yes, we have two rooms tomorrow night.” “What is price?” … and so on through a questionnaire about the size and depth of the pool, what food we offer, how many staff we employ and whether we give reduced prices to Sri Lankan people (answer – when Sri Lanka stops charging foreigners exorbitant rates to visit the Temple of the Tooth, Peradeniya Gardens or Sigiriya Rock we might consider it). Turns out it’s an extended family of sixteen people. Had they mentioned that when I told them we had two rooms it would have saved us both a lot of wasted time.

And the day trundles on interrupted by sales teams who turn up in fours, usually dressed as Jehovah’s Witnesses, trying on spec to sell anything from mobile phone networks to hotel supplies to laundry services. Martin runs in excitedly: “Sir, important letter now coming. Please pay two hundred fifty rupees.” The ‘important letter’ is a couriered certificate from the Tourist Board for which we have to pay the courier, despite having paid the Tourist Board the fee for the certificate in the first place.

How do you blog in the face of a stream of interruptions. You make the interruptions the material for the blog, that’s how.