Authors: Michael Ondaatje
During the month of May the circus came to Nuwara Eliya.
Once, when the circus lights failed, Major Robinson drove the fire engine into the tent and focussed the headlights on the trapeze artist, who had no intention of continuing and sat there straddling his trapeze. At one of these touring circuses my Aunt Christie (then only twenty-five) stood up and volunteered to have an apple shot off her head by “a total stranger in the circus profession.” That night T. W. Roberts was bitten in the leg by a dog while he danced with her. Later the dog was discovered to be rabid, but as T. W. had left for England nobody bothered to tell him. Most assume he survived. They were all there. Piggford of the police, Paynter the planter, the Finnellis who were Baptist missionaries—“she being an artist and a very good tap dancer.”
This was Nuwara Eliya in the twenties and thirties. Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations. There was a large social gap between this circle and the Europeans and English who were never part of the Ceylonese community. The English were seen as transients, snobs and racists, and were quite separate from those who had intermarried and who lived here permanently. My father always claimed to be a Ceylon Tamil, though that was probably more valid about three centuries earlier. Emil Daniels summed up the situation for most of them when he was asked by one of the British governors what his nationality was—“God alone knows, your excellency.”
The era of grandparents. Philip Ondaatje was supposed to have the greatest collection of wine glasses in the Orient; my other grandfather, Willy Gratiaen, dreamt of snakes. Both my grandmothers lived cautiously, at least until their husbands died. Then they blossomed, especially Lalla who managed to persuade all those she met into chaos. It was Lalla who told us that the twenties were “so whimsical, so busy—that we were always tired.”
THE WAR BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
Years later, when Lalla was almost a grandmother, she was standing in the rain at the Pettah market on her way to a party. Money was not so easily available and she did not own a car. When the bus arrived she herded herself in with the rest and, after ten minutes of standing in the aisle, found a seat where three could sit side by side. Eventually the man next to her put his arm behind her shoulder to give them all more room.
Gradually she began to notice the shocked faces of the passengers facing her across the aisle. At first they looked disapprovingly and soon began whispering to each other. Lalla looked at the man next to her who had a smug smile on his face. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Then she looked down and saw that his hand had come over her left shoulder and was squeezing her breast. She smiled to herself.
She had not felt a thing. Her left breast had been removed five years earlier and he was ardently fondling the sponge beneath her gown.
Francis de Saram had the most extreme case of alcoholism in my father’s generation and, always the quickest, was the first to drink himself into the grave. He was my father’s and Noel’s closest friend and the best man at several weddings he tried to spoil. Unambitious, and generous, he lost all his teeth young—something he could never remember doing. When he got into a fight he would remove his false teeth and put them in his back pocket. He was in love for a while with Lorna Piachaud and started fights all over her wedding reception. He even attacked his own wife and then, overcome with guilt, decided to drown himself in a section of the Kandy Lake that was only twelve inches deep. While he crawled around on his hands and knees, H— consoled Francis’ wife as well as he could “and took as much as he could get.” If Francis was the extreme alcoholic, H— was the great rake, his tumescent heart notorious all over Colombo.
Francis and his friends discovered that the cheapest drinks could be found on ships, where alcohol was duty free. Pretending to visit departing relatives, they would board vessels in the harbour and stumble off gangplanks in the early hours of the morning. They were usually ordered out of the lounge when Noel, unable to play a single tune, started thrashing out one of his spontaneous concerts on the piano. Once, when asked to prove who they knew on board, my father opened the first cabin door and claimed a sleeping man as his friend. My father was wearing a tie from his “Cambridge” days and the sleeper, noticing this, groggily vouched for him. They coaxed the sleeper to the bar and my father managed to remember all the Cambridge names, recalling even the exploits of the notorious Sharron K—, who caused havoc with the population of three colleges.
One night Mervyn came to our house and told Vernon, “We’re all going to Gasanawa, get dressed.” It was one in the morning. Vernon went off to find his clothes and returned to find Mervyn asleep in his bed. He couldn’t be moved. You see he just needed a place to sleep.
Gasanawa was the rubber estate where Francis worked and it became the base for most of their parties. Twenty or thirty people would leap into their cars after a tennis tournament or during a boring evening and if the men were already drunk some of the women drove. They all poured out at Gasanawa where they slept in cabins that Francis had built for just such moments. Whenever he was sober, Francis tried to make the estate a perfect place for parties. He lived on gin, tonic-water, and canned meat. He was in the middle of building a tennis court when his boss ordered him to build a proper road into the estate. This took three years
because Francis in his enthusiasm built it three times as wide as the main road in Colombo.
People’s memories about Gasanawa, even today, are mythic. “There was a lovely flat rock in front of the bungalow where we danced to imported songs such as ‘Moonlight Bay’ and ‘A Fine Romance.’ ” “A Fine Romance” was always my mother’s favourite song. In her sixties I would come across her in the kitchen half singing,
“We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes/but you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.”
So many songs of that period had to do with legumes, fruit and drink. “Yes, we have no bananas,” “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts,” “Mung beans on your collar,” “The Java Jive.” … Dorothy Clementi-Smith would sing the solo verses to “There is a tavern in the town” while the others would drunkenly join in on the chorus. Even the shy Lyn Ludowyck betrayed his studies and came out there once, turning out to be a superb mimic, singing both male and female parts from Italian operas which the others had never heard of—so they all thought at first that he was singing a Sinhalese baila.
But for the most part it was the tango that was perfected on that rock at Gasanawa. Casually dressed couples, coated in a thin film of sweat, swirled under the moon to “Rio Rita” by John Bowles on the gramophone, wound up time and again by the drunk Francis. Francis could only dance the tango solo so that he wouldn’t do damage to women’s feet, for which he had too much respect. He would put on “I kiss your little hand, Madame” and mime great passion for an invisible partner, kissing the mythical hand, pleading to the stars and jungle around him to console him in an unrequited abstract love. He was a great dancer but with a limited endurance. He usually collapsed at the end of his
performance, and a woman would sit beside him bathing his head and face with cool water while the others continued dancing.
The parties lasted until the end of the twenties when Francis lost his job over too splendid a road. He was lost to them all by 1935. He was everyone’s immaculate, gentle friend, the most forgiven and best-dressed among them, whispering to someone a few seconds before he died, while holding a fish in his hand, “A man
have clothes for every occasion.”
The waste of youth. Burned purposeless. They forgave that and understood that before everything else. After Francis died there was nowhere really to go. What seemed to follow was a rash of marriages. There had been good times. “Women fought each other like polecats over certain men.”