Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

(by Ajith Samaranayake) Unnaturally for Nuwara Eliya the sun is shining in August. Not enough to drive away the cold entirely, of course, but there is sunshine nevertheless. It falls on the flowers in the park, the grass on the race course and the waters of Lake Gregory. Even when the town is wrapped in that fine thin rain so characteristic of it, the air is luminous with the sun. It is even possible to go about without too much warm clothing.

What strikes you about Nuwara Eliya is its paradoxical size. The centre of the town is like anywhere else, no bigger or smaller and cluttered with the monuments to commerce such as banks, shopping centres and restaurants but beyond these immediate bounds lies a different spatial dimension. The town then begins to stretch outwards in the rolling acres which carry you up to the residential districts or those leafy, flowery streets leading out to Lake Gregory or the remoter roads which take you in different directions, to Kandapola, to Welimada and the other outposts in the hills.

Everything in Nuwara Eliya is at walking pace. There is no vehicular scramble, no pedestrian rat race and the drivers are the best behaved anywhere. And to savour Nuwara Eliya too you have to walk. Along those wide, winding leaf-laden roads, past those gingerbread houses with their smoking chimneys, past the churchyards and the graveyards. Even the meaner parts of the city are covered with their own gloss.

Nuwara Eliya is, of course, a town in a cocoon. To look at the splendour of the town, its hills and gardens and lakes, and even the lowly plantation workers going about in their second-hand warm clothing, is to be transported to another planet, a slice of the Home Countries in Britain where all those planters and military officers from the colonies retired to spend the evening of their lives. To look at the Grand Hotel and the Hill Club and the race course is to be reminded of the days of imperial glory when the White Raj rode on his steed.

But yet for all the remnants of this splendour Nuwara Eliya is a town cocooned, cocooned from the poverty and the backwardness in which the plantation workers of recent Indian Origin as well as the Sinhala peasants live around it. Nuwara Eliya is a town for the Sahibs, for their rest and recreation in April (when things get hot in Colombo), a seasonal town descended from nowhere and transplanted on Sri Lankan soil during a long dead era.

So the English created a dream town in Nuwara Eliya, a replica in microcosm of the English Home Countries with their manors and their castles, their eccentric squires and baronets straight out of the pages of P.G. Wodehouse. And in the town centre they put down the Grand Hotel for their culinary pleasures, the race course where they could practise the Sport of Kings, the Golf Club where they could putt in peace and Cargills where they could shop for those peculiar English delicacies such as strawberries and cream.

However, behind this tinsel facade is the reality although you will not see it easily among the green hills. In fact the billiard table smoothness of the acres of tea dotted about with their colourfully dressed quaint tea-pluckers (the delight of the Tourist Board or SriLankan Air Line poster) is calculately designed to conceal and obscure that reality. How many who admire the nimble-fingered tea-plucker or the swarthy estate coolie (those colonial hang-overs again) care to think of their ancestry? These after all are the successors to a miserable generation who were plucked out of their homes – in South India and driven in great hordes (many perished on the way due to weakness and hunger) and brought to Ceylon and transplanted on alien soil. They lived in line rooms and were dominated by a ‘kangany’ who was the overload of their world. Men, women and children were compelled to work on the land for a pittance.

If they were sick they had to go to the dispenser. If they were broke they had to go to the money lender (more often than not the ‘kangany’ himself). They were not permitted to leave the orbit of the estate over which revolved the sun of their lives, the Periya Dorai or the Superintendent who was the lord of all he surveyed from his palatial English-style bungalow.

And the country thrived, prospered and fattened. It got swollen and bloated. The tea flowed into the factories and the great ware houses of Mincing Lane, there to be marketed as ‘Pure Ceylon Tea’ by the big-name British companies which dominated the industry and funnelled back their profits to Good Old Blighty. The best of Ceylon tea was drunk at Buckingham Palace and in the best of clubs and finally when the white man packed up his bags and left leaving the brown sahibs to move into his John White shoes the Ceylonese comprador bourgeoisie was quite satisfied to fatten and bloaten itself on the surplus which emanated from the plantations and live it up in Colombo. The line-rooms were another story altogether not a fit subject for polite conversation.

But the British planters were no hobgoblins either. They were after all only doing their job. There had to be sturdy English, Irish and Scots men to come and work in the colonies as planters, civil servants and soldiers and these men were only taking up the challenge, shouldering Kipling’s White Man’s Burden. Once in a while there was even a George Orwell or Leonard Woolf to sing of the indigenous people’s misery, to make a dirge of their hopelessness. And there were the faceless and nameless English who had lived and died and buried their bones in the Kandyan hills. To visit the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya for example is to confront this grim truth.

There either in ornate plaque or in fading letters on humble gravestone are the names of phalanx upon phalanx of Englishmen who had perished in Ceylon sometimes whole families out of illness. Illness in primitive Ceylon was no respecter of persons. Sahib and Memsahib could die as much as a coolie or his over-burdened wife. Some had died in the wars, the great European wars which the British had fought to ensure ‘peace in our time’. Not all of them were professional soldiers, some of them planters who had volunteered to go up to the front where they were killed and where the poppy flower is said to bloom over their unmarked graves.

But now that the English planters are long gone what is left? A new elite has taken over the place of the old agency houses under companies some of which even flaunt suitably rural Sinhala names and privatisation is the name of the game. The cry goes out from time to time that the tea industry is in the doldrums and that other countries are overtaking us. But the tea industry will go on for ever with the Periya Dorai and the ‘meenachchi’ at the two ends of the pyramid. But what of the hills themselves? Who is to be fill the economic vacuum left by the Planter Raj. The plantation workers have their Thondamans and their Chandrasekerans and the Sinhala peasants have their Dissanayakes and their Dassanayakes. But who is to revive the plantation industry? And who is to give a better deal for the potato and vegetable growers of Welimada and Kandapola? And who is to ensure that the two communities, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, live in harmony?

Shrouded in mist, overhung by majestic mountains and caressed by the Lake Gregory’s waters these are the real questions for Nuwara Eliya. On a morning the boy jockeys will hang around the overgrown race course waiting to take a child on a pony’s back. The Grand Hotel looms over the city its bare lounges and billiards room and bar waiting for unseasonal custom, having made a concession to an Indian eatery on its grounds (what a delicious revenge on those pukka sahibs who would have squirmed at the idea of eating ‘thosai’ and ‘vadai’ in its grandiose setting).

As we reach Colombo we hear of plans by the Grand Hotel management in collaboration with Sri Lankan Airlines to make Nuwara Eliya an all-year-round holiday destination. So perhaps the Nuwara Eliya town will await its destiny but as we come down the Ramboda pass back home passing those tea pluckers and the farmers of Kotmale (where legend has it King Dutugemunu had gone into exile before preparing for his last battle for Anuradhapura) the question echoes through the hills: What of the people?

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