Thursday, February 23, 2017
Some enduring and endearing memories of my family
By Nihal Amerasekera
For the first half of the last century we were under British rule. They were uninvited guests in our country. The British were in Ceylon not to give us financial aid but to take away what we had without our permission. With the rich pickings from the Empire they made their country Great. However, they established the rule of law in Ceylon, a just and efficient administration and Western style parliamentary democracy and personal liberties. Both my parents were born during the British Period and were largely influenced by their presence. The Christian Missionaries established many schools. The schools of the time glorified British rule. The Western way of life pervaded the lives of the upper and middle classes in Ceylon.
My father lived and died in the 20th century. The 2 world wars, Russian revolution and the rise and fall of communism and fascism must have affected the lives of that generation enormously. That was a generation which took pride in their sacrifice to their country, parents and their children. We are fortunate to be at the receiving end of their boundless generosity. For the later generations focus has sadly moved away from generosity and sacrifice into a selfish lifestyle. This has occurred worldwide and not only in my tiny island home. It must be said the later generations are responsible for the moral awakening and the enormous strides towards conquering disease. So perhaps the honours are even.
At the tender age of 14 he lost both his parents within the short space of 6 months. I am reminded of a quote by Oscar Wild " To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." That was an unimaginable tragedy for a young family. With his 4 brothers and 2 sisters he moved into “The Castle” at Kudabuthgamuwa owned by his unmarried maternal uncle. The Castle was a large house in a coconut plantation with many fruit trees. In those days it was the duty of the close family to step in to help. The burden of the family fell on Uncle Victor. He was a slim short man with a Hitler’s moustache. He believed in strict Victorian discipline, hard work and Dickensian punishments. All he wanted for the children was a good future.
Uncle Victor was portrayed as a miser and there are stories galore, some most amusing, about his tight fist. It may seem too unkind to relate them now. The kids were no angels and got into all sorts of mischief. Plucked fruits without permission argued, fought and often “forgot “ to give the needed respect to the elders. In those days children should only be seen and not heard. Punishments for misdemeanors came thick and fast. They had many good times too living together close to nature in that large estate. They relied on each other for their very survival. Uncle Victor never married until all the children grew up and moved away. Such personal sacrifice must be a rarity now. Uncles 3 boys became useful members of Ceylonese society. The middle son Asoka became the Professor of Veterinary Science and the Dean of the Faculty at Peradeniya. The old couple lived well into their 90’s. My father had grown rather fond of “The Castle” and its surrounds. It is here he acquired his lifelong love of the countryside. Time moved on and so passed his early years.
My father’s eldest sister Hyacinth married Edward Ashley Peries and settled in Kegalle. For her it was going back to her roots and from then on she never looked back. E.A.Peries had a thriving practice as a criminal lawyer and later became the Crown Proctor. He was a person with immense charm and charisma which endeared him to the people of the district. They made him Chairman of the Urban District Council. He mixed local politics and his busy law practice with tremendous ease and poise. I remember the lavish party they had when the Governor General bestowed on him the OBE. The great and the good gathered to dance the night away to the sounds of live music. Those were chivalrous times and was the era of Ballroom dancing made popular by Victor Sylvester. It was Champagne all the way. No expense was spared. The party ended with breakfast in the morning for the few survivors.
The Peries family home was on Circular Road Kegalle and was called “Ashley Hall”. It was built on the side of a hill with a layout similar to an English Manor House. The house was hidden away from the road by a tall well trimmed Hibiscus hedge. There was a lovely manicured lawn in front carefully maintained by a gardener. The large elegant roses were always in bloom and gave the whole garden a lovely scent. Even now whenever I smell roses it takes me back 50 years to Ashley Hall. There was a pond with gold fish and lotus leaves, a magnet for kingfishers. The house had numerous rooms with a wide spacious verandahs and a separate servants quarters. The hall was beautifully carpeted and had chandeliers and a grand piano. The Philips ‘wireless’ had a green magic eye for tuning. It was a standard ritual to gather round the radio in the evenings. Amidst the hiss and the crackle we listened to the Ashes test match via the BBC. Sunday Choice and House wives choice were popular programmes. His Masters Voice gramophone was a symbol of affluence in those days. I have always considered Ashley Hall as my spiritual and ancestral home.
One of my fathers brothers affectionately called ”Tiny” was a Superintendent at Etana Estate Warakapola. The estate was a 900 acre rubber plantation managed by Mackwoods Ltd. Every rubber tree had a peeled strip of bark from which oozed the latex which collected in a coconut shell. The workers collected the latex and deposited in the factory where it was weighed before payment. The Rubber Factory was a large building made of corrugated iron and contained all the machinery to process the rubber. I still remember the noisy rollers and wheels that worked throughout the day. For the humble workers the pay day was their best day to get drunk and beat the drums and dance. This was the only release from their dull and monotonous life. We could hear the drums deep into the night. They lived in the “lines”( a single room for a whole family) in abject poverty. I still recall those naked children with bright eyes looking at us with envy. For them there was no escape from the cycle of poverty. Such were the undignified lives of the underclass that propped up our economy. We live in such an iniquitous world.
I remember spending a happy April holiday at Warakapola knowing well it was to be my last at Etana. My uncle retired and moved away from Etana Estate in 1961 thus ending yet another chapter of my rollercoaster life. Although I resolved to visit this idyll I never had the opportunity to see Etana again.
Time passed relentlessly as always. After a gruelling 5 years in Medical School I emerged as a doctor in 1967. By now I had learnt to mix work with pleasure and enjoy the fruits of my labour.
Uncle Tiny died suddenly in 1971 at the General Hospital Colombo aged 58 when I worked there as a junior doctor. He was a gracious host at social functions. If surrounded by a sea of turmoil he was an island of calm. It was a great shock to us all and a sad loss to many who knew him.
Once when I was in Kegalle in 1988 I revisited Ashley Hall. With the passage of time Uncle and aunt had passed away and the younger folk moved to the metropolis. Ashley Hall was on lease to a Government Department. The house and garden were in ruins. The turf had been dug up and the roses were gone. The garden was a temporary store for unwanted tables and chairs. The pond was dry and its wall had caved in. We walked into the house which was then empty . There were puddles of water inside the house from a leaking roof. An old man who was the caretaker took us round and there was an all pervading eerie silence. It was sad to see Ashley Hall in such decline. In place of the gorgeous chandeliers in the hall there was just a naked bulb. It was all too much for me. We told the man we spent our childhood there and he seemed to know the past too. Through the cobwebs of the rear window Saradiels Utuwankanda rose majestically into the sky unchanged in all those years. Before I left the caretaker said he and several others hear music and voices and see apparitions in that house. Knowing the past they have learnt to accept it as the norm. They all say that about old houses. Many yesterdays of my youth are buried in Ashley Hall.
When my father was ill I remember returning to Sri Lanka and the painful journey home. He was conscious drifting into silence from time to time. We spent a warm and happy time together at home. I remember well seeing my father alive for the last time. I had to say goodbye to leave for England. He was now well into his 80’s and had several minor strokes. His mind was not always clear. The bright eyes and the chubby face I knew as a boy was gone. He was partly bald and the hair was silver. Lines and furrows crossed his face and there were dark shadows round his eyes. His final illness has taken its toll. He never spoke but knew he would not see me again. His face grew calm. The eyes said it all. It was a long sleepless flight back to London. I reflected on his stories and the love and kindness since the very beginning. I never saw him again.
On this Blog I have narrated many of my adventures though life. I hope this narrative will bring it further into view. It is difficult to write as a detached onlooker when being so much a part of it. So it is coloured by my vision and how I saw it long time ago. It is a story of progress and regress, of hubris and humility. When I look into the life and times of the many players who took part in my life’s drama. I see the awesome force of destiny that fashioned and molded their lives.
The swift passage of time never fails to amaze me. The river of life runs on when youth passes into middle age and old age and then on to the vale beyond. I dedicate these memoirs to all those of my family who have now crossed those pearly gates. May their Souls Rest in Peace.
I close with the wisdom of Omar Khayyam from the Rubaiyat.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and–sans End!