Last Days In Ceylon: 47 Years Ago

29th January 2023 |

I’ve been asked for more raw notes from my notebooks. Here are my last days in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was still called, 47 years ago.

My notebook from Ceylon 47 years ago

Puttalam: On shore of a lagoon. Junction town. Single row of huts. Some thatched, some tiled. Small veg market has chilis, kohl rabi, cabbage, carrot, tomato, limes, eggplant, potatoes, yams, etc. In short, an excellent variety. Fish market, a small, raised cement platform, thatched, had good fish too. Some puppies stood around it. One was so thin and failing it was scarcely more than a head. Watched some crows on a roof – one had a fruit in its beak but could hardly eat it, since as soon as it put the thing down to grip it with a claw another bird, unencumbered, would threaten possession. It had a younger companion also which simply screeched with open beak , and got a couple of morsels for its pains.

By the shore was a thin strand of sand littered with all kinds of rubbish. Again the crows attracted my attention, and one – obviously physically inferior – was hanging about behind the others.

At one point it raised a claw and put it pleadingly on another bird’s back – twice. The other bird flew away – the mangy crow was left alone. Then I noticed a dog – a bitch with distended udders – licking something between its front paws. It was a puppy stretched out on the rubbish, head back and oozing blood. The mother looked up so mournfully. These small examples of life and death on the rubbish heap moved me and depressed me profoundly. Since Colombo I’d been viewing the world through discomfort and fever, with a deliberately jaundiced view. I saw the profusion and luxuriance of the tropics as just a terrible mess, buildings as mildewed wrecks, human effort as futile. The people seemed tedious to me – an endless procession of Marks & Spencer shirt tails hanging over sheets – with facile smiles signifying nothing if not envy and ingratiation. Only the older women impressed me, in spite of myself, with the fineness of their features and slim handsome carriage. The road was murderously bumpy, the traffic foolish. Several times in Ceylon I’ve saved my life by noticing another driver when it was his obligation to notice me. People stop quite suddenly in the road for no apparent reason and without indication. I think there is a powerful amount to be said against “tropical paradise” and should be grateful for these fevers perhaps. The yearning for temperate home must have been overpowering in early adventurers when they fell sick.

At the Puttalam Rest House I got hot tea and an extra sheet [for the bed] and tried to sweat it out. There was plenty of sweat and in the morning I thought I’d won.

Cobra in Ceylong

I rode the 46 miles to Anaradhapura (after photographing a cobra) – and sat among the ruins for a while. A young man came, and by the brilliant tactic of NOT asking me for anything led me to offer him my address. I walked barefoot to the big Dagoba (or whatever). The dome is solid and covered with cement – has little to say to me. There’s a crack where it was once struck by lightning, and a new lightning conductor runs down the side. There’s also a maze of granite pillars sticking out of the ground. The lad says this is the ground floor of seven story building in which a hundred monks prayed on each floor, all in their solitary cells. If true it’s an amazing notion – what a hum must have gone out from that box. Enjoyed the moonstone outside the temple. Elephant, horse, lion, buffalo. From A on the road to Mannar, and at the main junction was already feeling the fever again. Had a drink and some Disprin. Disprin is becoming part of my diet. Rest of journey went well. No more rain. In the morning I rode through a maximum downpour for maybe 15 mins – and the [new Belstaff] jacket is a success.

Got the same room at the [Puttalam] rest house. Went straight out to fish off bridge, thinking how nice to be alone, but a great company of betel chewers l;ined up alongside me. I managed to live with it however, and got the great excitement of a catch. The fish felt very strong, and for a while I couldn’t move it at all – after its first run – then slowly I inched it in. It was a stingray. Very exciting to see it come out of the water. Not really so big – maybe 4 lbs – with beautiful mottled brown back, a rather human mouth, and two eyes on top. One of the men cut off the tail and showed me the spike which lies alongside it close to the root (not as I imagined it at all). Took it back proudly to the Rest House. The cook said he would fry it for me, but as a fish, he said “it is not famous.”

Two men passing on the bridge started talking to me. It annoyed me at the time, and I must have showed it.

“Your native land, please?”

“Are you a university graduate?”

“How much does this – or that cost?”

They came afterwards to the Rest House and I had to sit and take tea with them. One was the Medical Officer for the area – the other. Mr. Ratnavale, is a clerk of some sort. They have so little to say, and understand so little of what I say, that it’s largely a ritual. Whatever I said, Mr. R’s face would express perfect wonder and enlightenment and say “I see” as though everything was now clear. But the MO did describe symptoms of typhoid [nausea, among others] which gave me a bit of a scare next day.
Rest House manager told me of a series of superstitions. If a monk crosses your path when you aet out – forget it. If the gekko chatters as you step out of the house – also forget it. If you run over a cat you’ll have an accident. Woodpecker’s noise is a bad omen.

He also says Tamils smell different. If they use a towel, you won’t be able to. Sinhalese and Europeans are much closer [he says].

14 October

Rain is really pounding down in the night. The garden has become a lake. The varnish on all the chairs is sticky. Pools of water on the floor. Write home and walk to the post office. Get back, to feel feverish again. Decide to take tetracycline [which I carried with me]. Soon afterwards, vomit {having drunk Coca-Cola). Think I might have typhoid. Get scared and get driven to hospital as emergency. Doctor greets me with great amusement.

“What do you want – he asks – medicine or to be admitted?”

“I want to know what’s wrong.”

He can’t stop grinning. “Cough,” he says.

I essay a couple of coughs.

“There you are you see. You’ve got a cough.”

I deny it, but he just laughs. “You’ve got a fever.”

“Why,” I ask? It’s so ridiculous I have to smile too.

“The climate,” he answers. “Take a Disprin and it will go.

“That’s what I’ve been doing for three days.”

He still thinks it’s a huge joke. He asks several questions but doesn’t listen to the answers. But he’s convinced there’s nothing wrong with me, so I begin to believe that at least it’s nothing very much. Back to the Rest House, much embarrassed. Soon afterwards astonish them by going fishing in the rain. A fish takes away the hook. Later it comes down in a torrent and I slosh back to change. Through afternoon, two more Disprins, begin to feel better.

Mr. Ratnavale calls on me. My heart sinks, but he’s better today – not so overawed by his weighty companion. Eventually he walks off into the rain and comes back, unsolicited, with a packet of five Capstan cigarettes. Very sweet. Has wife and three kids in Jaffna. Means to travel overland to Europe.

Now great wind blows up outside. Will tomorrow be stormy? Walked around the Portuguese fort. 17th century. Impressive size.

Busy night. Great storm blowing, with sounds like gunshots, among others. Between nine and midnight I must have sweated a lake. Both sheets wringing wet, and mattress too. Had to change the mattress and put on trousers and vest. Both damp in the morning. The tetracycline must have helped me to chase the fever out so I’ll go on with it for 4 days. It occurred to me that the ferry would hardly have been able to dock last night and this morning, at the bus depot someone confirms that it was anchored a mile off shore. Maybe in the afternoon, maybe in the morning. I imagine I’ll be here another night yet.

Go to pier. Sea very rough. One fishing boat breaks anchor line – tossing about on the other line, spewing out broken fittings which poor owners are combing off beach. Ferry is in, discharging passengers, but customs is very slow. Capt. puts to sea empty, afraid that sea may cause ship to break the pier. No ferry today.