Authors: Michael Ondaatje
My paternal grandfather—Philip—was a strict, aloof man. Most people preferred his brother Aelian who was good-natured and helpful to everyone. Both were lawyers but my grandfather went on to make huge sums of money in land deals and retired as he said he would at the age of forty. He built the family home, “Rock Hill,” on a prime spot of land right in the centre of the town of Kegalle.
“Your great uncle Aelian was a very generous man,” says Stanley Suraweera. “I wanted to learn Latin and he offered to tutor me from four until five every morning. I’d go to his house by cart every day and he would be up, waiting for me.” In later years Aelian was to have several heart attacks. In one hospital he was given so much morphine that he became addicted to it.
My grandfather lived at Rock Hill for most of his life and ignored everybody in Kegalle social circles. He was immensely
wealthy. Most people considered him a snob, but with his family he was a very loving man. The whole family kissed each other goodnight and good morning, a constant tradition in the house—no matter what chaos my father was causing at the time. Family arguments were buried before bedtime and buried once more first thing in the morning.
So here was “Bampa,” as we called him, determined to be a good father and patriarch, spreading a protective wing over his more popular brother Aelian, and living in his empire—acres of choice land in the heart of Kegalle. He was dark and his wife was very white, and a rival for my grandmother’s hand remarked that he hoped the children would be striped. The whole family lived in terror of him. Even his strong-willed wife could not blossom till after his death. Like some other Ondaatjes, Bampa had a weakness for pretending to be “English” and, in his starched collars and grey suits, was determined in his customs. My brother, who was only four years old then, still remembers painfully strict meals at Rock Hill with Bampa grinding his teeth at one end of the table—as if his carefully built ceremonies were being evaded by a weak-willed family. It was only in the afternoons when, dressed in sarong and vest, he went out for walks over his property (part of a mysterious treatment for diabetes), that he seemed to become a real part of the landscape around him.
Every two years he would visit England, buy crystal, and learn the latest dances. He was a perfect dancer. Numerous aunts remember him inviting them out in London and taking great pleasure in performing the most recent dance steps with a natural ease. Back home there was enough to worry about. There was Aelian, who was continually giving his money away to ecclesiastical causes, the cousin who was mauled to death by his underfed racehorse, and four star-crossed sisters who were secret drinkers.
Most Ondaatjes liked liquor, sometimes to excess. Most of them were hot tempered—though they blamed diabetes for this whenever possible. And most were genetically attracted to a family called Prins and had to be talked out of marriage—for the Prins brought bad luck wherever they went.
My grandfather died before the war and his funeral was spoken about with outrage and envy for months afterwards. He thought he had organized it well. All the women wore long black dresses and imported champagne was drunk surreptitiously from teacups. But his hope of departing with decorum collapsed before he was put into the ground. His four sisters and my recently liberated grandmother got into a loud argument over whether to pay the men two or three rupees to carry the coffin up the steep slopes to the cemetery. Awkward mourners who had come from Colombo waited as silent as my supine grandfather while the argument blazed from room to room and down the halls of Rock Hill. My grandmother peeled off her long black gloves in fury and refused to proceed with the ceremony, then slid them on with the aid of a daughter when it seemed the body would never leave the house. My father, who was overseeing the cooling of the champagne, was nowhere in sight. My mother and Uncle Aelian retired in a fit of giggles to the garden under the mangosteen tree. All this occurred on the afternoon of September 12, 1938. Aelian died of his liver problems in April of 1942.
* * *
For the next decade Rock Hill was seldom used by my family and my father was not to return to it for some years. By that time my parents were divorced and my father had lost various jobs. Bampa had willed the land to his grandchildren but my father,
whenever he needed to, would sell or give away sections of land so that houses were gradually built up along the perimeter of the estate. My father returned alone to Kegalle in the late forties and took up farming. He lived quite simply at that time, separate from the earlier circle of friends, and my sister Gillian and I spent most of our holidays with him. By 1950 he had married again and was living with his wife and his two children from his second marriage, Jennifer and Susan.
He ended up, in those later years, concentrating on chickens. His dipsomania would recur every two months or so. Between bouts he would not touch a drink. Then he would be offered one, take it, and would not or could not stop drinking for three or four days. During that time he could do
but drink. Humorous and gentle when sober, he changed utterly and would do anything to get alcohol. He couldn’t eat, had to have a bottle on him at all times. If his new wife Maureen had hidden a bottle, he would bring out his rifle and threaten to kill her. He knew, even when sober, that he would need to drink again, and so buried bottles all around the estate. In the heart of his drunkenness he would remember where the bottles were. He would go into the fowl run, dig under chicken straw, and pull out a half bottle. The cement niches on the side of the house held so many bottles that from the side the building resembled a wine cellar.
He talked to no one on those days, although he recognized friends, was aware of everything that was going on. He had to be at the peak of his intelligence in order to remember exactly where the bottles were so he could outwit his wife and family. Nobody could stop him. If Maureen managed to destroy the bottles of gin he had hidden he would drink methylated spirits. He drank until he collapsed and passed out. Then he would waken and drink again. Still no food. Sleep. Get up and have one more
shot and then he was finished. He would not drink again for about two months, not until the next bout.
The day my father died, Stanley Suraweera, now a Proctor at Kegalle, was in Court when a messenger brought him the note:
Mervyn has dropped dead. What shall I do? Maureen
* * *
We had spent three days in Upcot in beautiful tea country with my half-sister Susan. On the way back to Colombo we drove through the Kadugannawa Pass and stopped at Kegalle. The old wooden bridge that only my father drove over without fear (“God loves a drunk” he would say to anyone who sat by him white with terror) had been replaced with a concrete one.
What to us had been a lovely spacious house was now small and dark, fading into the landscape. A Sinhalese family occupied Rock Hill. Only the mangosteen tree, which I practically lived in as a child during its season of fruit, was full and strong. At the back, the kitul tree still leaned against the kitchen—tall, with tiny yellow berries which the polecat used to love. Once a week it would climb up and spend the morning eating the berries and come down drunk, would stagger over the lawn pulling up flowers or come into the house to up-end drawers of cutlery and serviettes. Me and my polecat, my father said after one occasion when their drunks coincided, my father lapsing into his songs—baila or heartbreaking Rodgers and Hart or his own version of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”—
My whiskey comes over the ocean
My brandy comes over the sea
But my beer comes from F.X. Pereira
So F.X. Pereira for me.
F.X. Pereira for me, for me.…
He emerged out of his bedroom to damn whoever it was that was playing the piano—to find the house empty—Maureen and the kids having left, and the polecat walking up and down over the keys breaking the silence of the house, oblivious to his human audience; and my father wishing to celebrate this companionship, discovering all the bottles gone, unable to find anything, finally walking up to the kerosene lamp hanging in the centre of the room at head level, and draining
liquid into his mouth. He and his polecat.
Gillian remembered some of the places where he hid bottles.
. Her family and my family walked around the house, through the depressed garden of guava trees, plantains, old forgotten flowerbeds. Whatever “empire” my grandfather had fought for had to all purposes disappeared.
DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT MATISSE