Friday, January 29, 2016

Yolande Bavan

Sunday Times Jan 24 2016

Was it fate or a higher power that led jazz legend Billie Holiday into the life of a young and unknown singer from Ceylon to exert such a profound influence on her in their brief friendship?
Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
Yolande Bavan will always remember Billie’s words – “Whatever you do when you sing, you tell the truth. Sing the truth. If it’s painful sing that pain. Don’t dodge. Because music you don’t dodge”.
Decades later, at a concert in Colombo, her audience felt that pain, when Yolande sang the Beatles’ ‘Fool on the Hill’ dedicating it to her father.
Misunderstood and assailed by misfortune, he it was who had given her that love for jazz and sent her forth on a journey that would take the wide-eyed, pigtailed slip of a girl from Dickman’s Road, Bambalapitiya to unimaginable heights as a jazz singer and actress in London and New York, to write her own piece of jazz history as the surprise replacement for Annie Ross in the renowned trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
It was as Yolande Woolf that she went to London and when she began making her way as an actress, her friend Indian film director Waris Hussein who had cast her as Cleopatra in the production of Caesar and Cleopatra told her that going as just ‘Yolande’ as she had been doing since she got on stage simply would not do.
“It sounds like a stripper,” he said disapprovingly. “You should be Yolande Bavan – Yolande Bavan from Ceylon.”
She is back in her island home this sunny January on holiday; disappointingly for those who remember her lyrical voice there is no performance, her only engagement a talk at a Rotary luncheon not surprisingly titled ‘All that Jazz’ and time to enjoy the Literary Festival in Galle and an unending supply of tea.
“Too much tea,” she says smiling, remembering how growing up she had disdained tea even though on her stepfather’s estate there was this wonderful aroma of tea wafting from the factory.
“I thought coffee more sophisticated until I lived in London and suddenly had a turn of tastebuds.”
My Sinhalese is coming back, she adds in some surprise, that after sixty years the memory still pries it out from the recesses of her mind.
Yolande’s mother Irene Cecilia Walles was a concert pianist and as young as three she began playing the piano and later breezing through the Royal Academy exams.
That this would be her career was never disputed. But her parents’ shattering divorce left her sister Jean and her as wards of court and necessitated a move from Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya to Good Shepherd Convent, Kotahena where the Irish nuns were strict disciplinarians.
Only one Irish American nun realising her passion for music gave her the freedom to sing and play the piano and organ for Mass. But the music lessons with her mother were over and a dream that she and her mother had shared, had died.
Her mother had not even let her have her vaccinations on her arm for it would leave a scar unbecoming on stage, she says. After her mother remarried, Yolande divided her school holidays between her parents.
A painful memory is of being dropped off at one end of Good Shepherd Convent and having to make the long lonely walk across the length of the school, past the deserted netball and tennis courts to where her father would pick her up from the other gate.
Only the orphans were still there in school she says remembering how sorry she felt for them. It pricked her consciousness that they would be so bereft, she says.
Her parents’ divorce left deep scars. To this day, she says she cannot bear raised voices and anger –“I try to stay away from anything that is really jarring,” she says.
But her father later put her into St. Paul’s Milagiriya “a lot of Burghers were there” and in that more relaxed atmosphere, young Yolande blossomed.
The glory days: A Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan album
She became sports captain, formed the school’s first cricket team, going on to become school captain or head girl. And of course, she played the piano and sang.
It was her friends at St. Paul’s who taught her a Doris Day song and pushed her to enter a competition conducted by Radio Ceylon and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
She won and was given her own fortnightly radio show on Radio Ceylon ‘Swingtime’ backed by the likes of Stuart de Silva on the piano, Ghazali Amit on the guitar, Cass Ziard on drums, Jimmy van Sanden on bass.
One of those involved in the show was an Australian – Graham Evans, who insisted she should go to Australia.
Peter Wille, a well known cricketer who had lived down Dickman’s Road (“I had gone to school with his sister”) took her to meet Graeme Bell, a famous pianist in Australia. Bell hearing her sing took her on to his Dixieland band. Yolande was 16!
She can see clearly now the pattern that emerged in the fabric of her life and that strong underlying pull of destiny that took her forward unwavering.
“You know when you are young you have such confidence, maybe foolhardy but still confidence. As you get older you start getting insecure because so many arrows have come your way, so much criticism, judgements, gossip.
You have to have your faith. Somehow I felt something was undergirding me. I went in innocently, thinking it’s all going to work out.”
If her mother had schooled her in the classics, it was her father who awakened a feel for jazz. “I came home one day – I had to do a paper on Aldous Huxley and he was listening to Radio Tangier and he said ‘You have to hear this song’.
I think it was Charlie Parker. I remember he said ‘that man is in terrible pain’.” Her father began playing more jazz for her, and his friends Al van Starrex, Cass Ziard, Dan Durairaj and Lawrie Perera would go to the docks when the American ships came in and buy jazz albums and play them for her. “I loved the piano so I listened to George Shearing.”
Hearing Sarah Vaughan her father likened her voice to a choir of angels. Years later it was Sarah Vaughan who recommended that Yolande go to America.
When Bell and his band were asked to go to Korea to entertain the combined services, Yolande went too, performing to a largely male audience, and then joining Bell to perform in jazz crazy Japan.
Back home after one and a half years, singing briefly for Donovan Andree, her father realising that Ceylon could not offer the platform for her considerable talents suggested she go to England.
Looking back she sees how much pain the separation would have caused him. “He lived alone at No. 3, Dickman’s Road, with me and one servant. He never had anybody, but he gave me the freedom to go.”
She hardly knew anyone in London but Graeme Bell had told her to go and see the jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton who sent her to his agent Lyn Dutton.
Dutton became her agent and soon she was performing on variety shows. When the call came to audition for a TV play, she was sick with bronchitis and running a fever, but went nevertheless.
“I was to play a terrorist from Algiers who comes to England to kill. I hadn’t acted in my life.” She landed the role.
Was it God or fate, she asks. The great master director, the Cecil B de Mille of the heavens, she says, with an expressive, expansive gesture.
Yolande’s career as an actress had taken off. “I was doing plays. I got cast in two more TV plays, I did another play where I played Sammy Davis Jnr’s wife in ‘Day of the Fox” for the BBC.
Then she was Cleopatra which started at the Cambridge Arts and then moved to the West End at the Duchess Theatre, followed by the Greek tragedy Oresteia at the Old Vic.”I was never better in my life,” she says, marvelling at what chances came her way.
How she came to sing with the top jazz vocal trio in the world is a story worth retelling. Busy with her acting career, she was deeply immersed in jazz hanging around the bands when they performed, “like a groupie” she laughs.
In early ’62, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross came to England with the Count Basie band on tour and Yolande who was doing a revue called New Cranks by choreographer John Cranko, met Annie Ross who had been in the original show called Cranks. Twelve days later she would be replacing her in America.
It happened at a party –Lambert and Hendricks were there, she says. There was a lot of smoking and drinking. “I was helping my friend clean the ashtrays and hit the high note singing along to Dizzy Gillespie. “This voice next to me said, ‘who did that’ and I said, ‘I did’. It was Lambert.
“You’re a singer?” “I’m an actress.”
It was about 1 a.m.on a Monday morning in London, a few days later when the phone rang. It was Jon Hendricks. “There’s a plane ticket and your work permit at the American embassy, we want you to come on Wednesday,” he said.
“To do what?” she asked, totally bewildered and sleepy. “To sing with us,” came the reply. “I cannot sing that high.” “You were recommended by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. Will you please study our music,” he said.
Agreeing to join them on Saturday, she borrowed the records and tried frantically to learn the songs.
“I thought I would get to New York and rehearse. My friend Waris Hussein took me to the airport and I wore a saree.” She had never been to America. Even if nothing came of it at least she would have seen the skyscrapers, she thought. It was May 5th, 1962.
Dave Lambert was waiting to meet her. They boarded another plane and flew upstate to Schenectady, to Union College. The concert had started: Tom Paxton, a well known folk singer had opened the show and there was a crowd of 2,500.
The announcement came “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. “They pushed me out on stage in my saree with my PanAm bag still on me.”
That was the baptism of fire for the diminutive saree-clad singer from Ceylon. As Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan, the trio had a brief, dazzling stint recording three albums. It was at a party thrown by RCA records that she met Hollywood legend Cary Grant and an unlikely friendship began.
The day after she remembers the phone call from his assistant inviting her to his office at Universal Studios and the silver blue Rolls Royce arriving to pick her up. Grant showed her around the sets, took her to lunch and they talked.
In the four weeks she spent in Los Angeles, they met many times. “It was not romantic, I think he admired our music,” she says. “He was always kind and solicitous.”
The star however, who had the greatest influence on her life was Billie Holiday, who had told a bashful saree-clad Yolande at a Paris restaurant, that if she had a daughter she would want her to be just like her.
There grew a strong bond between them, with Billie teaching her songs. They met again a year later in London when Billie came to the UK to do a TV show and Yolande stayed with her in her dressing room as she taped the show trying to keep her from drinking. It was the last time she heard her sing.The emotion was there but the voice was failing.
“She was like a mentor in a way,” Yolande reflects. “She would say ‘When you come to America, if I hear that you are smoking dope I will come and slap you upside your head – it was an American phrase.
She would also say she would get me the 28 flavours of ice cream at Howard Johnson.” Significantly, five days after Yolande got to New York with Lambert and Hendricks, they did a late night tribute to Billie Holiday (Billie died in July 1959) and the thought came to her that if Billie were there, she would have got her the 28 flavours.
In the whirlwind days of Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, they were at all the famed jazz venues – the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and even after she left the trio, the roles kept coming, on stage, on TV and film, with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Three years ago though an unfortunate fall on a dark stage while in the play ‘My Granny the Goldfish’ in Toronto, necessitated spinal surgery.
Five difficult weeks compounded by an infection kept her in hospital. Your life gets altered, she says, talking frankly of confronting the frailties of age.
These days she focuses on mindful meditation: to be in the present, to be mindful of the present, not be caught up in projecting problems to the future.Books are never far away – the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi is a favourite. “And the Serenity prayer..I read it every morning.”
Not much known is that she has long been narrating books – a grand total of 540 audio books under the Talking Books programme done by the Library of Congress for the Blind, for which she received the Alexander Scorby Award for Narrator of the Year.
The first book she did for them in 1975 was ‘a body stripper’ – a steamy Barbara Cartland where she confesses, she was hard pressed at times not to dissolve into laughter.
Narrating the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Yogananda in three hefty volumes, was the toughest -it took a gruelling six months and was only possible thanks to the help of a kind and erudite Buddhist monk who helped her with the slokas.
At the Rotary luncheon, she talked of the wheel, the Rotary symbol, the cycles, the circles of life, some interweaving, some drifting off and that quest for greater compassion and service.
Though she leaves next weekend back to her New York apartment and her beloved cats ‘Rama’ and ‘Sita’, this country will not be far from her thoughts.
“I really would like to come back and do some masterclasses and talk to young people, about how to steer their own truth and not someone else’s.”
“That’s the wonderful thing about getting older – you have experienced things and you can talk about it. Everything is not roses – there are always thorns but you have to learn how to put the bandage when the thorns stick and not let it disrupt your faith. It’s easy to say but difficult to do.”
“Everything with me has a cycle, or a circle or some unknown factor,” she reflects. “That’s why I think I am so blessed in my life. Every morning I say ‘dear God thank you for making me be born in Sri Lanka’.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Let’s Preserve Our Street Name Heritage by Asiff Hussein

Street-names are as much a part and parcel of Sri Lanka’s heritage as any other aspect of our intangible culture. Changing names simply because they are thought to be a colonial hangover is a futile one born of an inferiority complex. One might as well insist that all our Pereras, Fernandos and De Silvas change their Lusitanian names for vernacular ones, or fill up the canals built by the Dutch or dismantle the railways laid by the British. Whether we like it or not, the colonial past is part of our national heritage. Likewise, street names, like place names in general, reflect the history of these places, and are, in a sense, heritage.

Unfortunately, the misplaced nationalist fervour that gripped the country shortly after independence and took it back by several decades also had an impact on our street names. This was especially in Colombo where a good many streets with short and sweet names which had come down from colonial times had to face the ignominy of being saddled with long unpronounceable jaw-breaking names So hard on the tongue are they that people are known to curse under their very breath the personalities after whom they have been named.

No really great man would want his name forced down another’s throat, but unfortunately this was not what happened in the zeal of nationalist snobbery. Hero-worshippers of every ilk and others of a pettier mindset obsessed with their ancestors canvassed hard to have a road named after someone or the other. The culture vultures raised their ugly heads during the previous regime to put the country a few more decades back. Fortunately most people do not bother with the new names at all, preferring to use the old ones instead, such as Union Place for Colvin R.De Silva Mawatha, Alexandra Place for C.W.W.Kannangara Mawatha, Green Path for Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha and Flower Road for Earnest De Silva Mawatha. Thus renaming streets after personalities, be they politicians, religious figures or artistes is really counter-productive. In fact they take a toll on their legacy.

The rot, needless to say, began in 1956 and shortly after a good many streets were renamed in keeping with the nationalist agenda of the then government. That was when Flower Road became Sir Ernest De Silva Mawatha, Turret Road became Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha and Stanley Place became Piyadasa Sirisena Mawatha. The 1960s saw another spate of renaming with Armour Street becoming Sri Sumanatissa Mawatha, Bloemendahl Road becoming K.Cyril C Perera Mawatha, Darley Road becoming T.B.Jayah Mawatha, High Street becoming W.A.De Silva Mawatha, Thurston Road becoming Cumaranatunga Munidasa Mawatha and Wolfendahl Street becoming Sri Ratnajothi Saravanamuttu Mawatha Thankfully the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were relatively free of the scourge though there was the unfortunate exception of Messenger Street in Maradana becoming M.J.M Lafir Mawatha in 1981.

That odious trend commenced once again with the previous regime, beginning from 2009 with Reid Avenue becoming Philip Gunawardane Mawatha and Norris Canal Road becoming Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda Mawatha. Guildford Crescent became Dr. Premasiri Khemadasa Mawatha in 2010 and Havelock Road became Sri Sambuddathva Jayanthi Mawatha in 2011.

That was when streets were even being named after living people. A notable example was Dickman’s Road becoming Dr.Lester James Pieris Mawatha. Here was a man I respected very much for his contribution to the arts, but was sad to note that his ego had got the better of him when he consented to have that road named after him, or who knows even canvassed to get it named after him. Then there was Thimbirigasyaya Road in Narahenpita, now called Muruththettuwe Ananda Nahimi Mawatha after the chief incumbent of the Abhayarama Temple located down the road. Interestingly he happens to be the President of the Public Services United Nurses Union. It seems the road was so named because the powers that be wished to curry his favour. Those with bloated egos desiring roads to be named after them deserve no respect from their fellow men and this should be conveyed to them in the strongest terms.

Leafing through Geoff Ells recent book on the origin of the city’s place names, Colombo Jumbo, I was surprised to learn that Union Place was so called because in the olden days, Slave Island, formerly an island, was connected by a road to the mainland by filling in a section somewhere where the present Union Place stands. I had earlier believed that it was the place where the trade unions of old picketed for the rights of the working class as they do even today. There is so much history the original place name preserves. Unfortunately it has been renamed after a political personality who had nothing to do with the place, except perhaps participating in the picketing activity that went on there. It is nevertheless heartening to note that hardly anyone, whether ordinary people or the commercial establishments lining the street, uses the new name. Old habits die hard and hopefully never will. After all, only a moron would take the trouble of using the new five-barreled name in lieu of the much simpler earlier one.

Yet another notable instance is Mosque Lane in Hulftsdorp which has been given the ludicrous name of Ghouse Mohideen Mawatha. The original name, needless to say, signified a religious edifice, a house of God, and a very important and historical one at that, the Colombo Grand Mosque. And now we find that it has been desecrated by the name of an individual whose only ‘merit’ was serving as a trustee of the mosque committee in the 40s and 50s.

Let’s pray those bad days are no more. But what if some moron started this nonsense again. What, one may ask could we do about it? The answer is plenty, provided there’s a strong civil movement with the residents of the road in question having all it takes to oppose the change. The residents of Bagatelle Road led by Former Supreme Court Judge, Dr.A.R.B. Amarasinghe took a bold stand when it was proposed to rename it Dr. Wijayananda Dahanayake Mawatha. This proposal, no doubt at the whims of a bureaucratic ignoramus, had emerged despite the fact that the former premier had never lived there. Galle whence he hailed would have been a more appropriate place to have a road named after him. Thankfully the change never took place because the residents stood united in the face of the proposed move. In this case, objections, if any, from residents of either side of the road, were requested to be submitted. But I was informed by a trustworthy resident of Guildford Crescent that they were never informed of the proposed name change to Premasiri Khemadasa Mawatha. Many are still said to be furious about it and will not content themselves till their road reverts to its original name.

Besides sentimental reasons - for Bagatelle Road has a very long history - Judge Amarasinghe cited practical reasons how street name changes affect people. And not just their addresses which are the sole means of guiding people to one’s residence and which have a long history of association with a particular place. Such changes also have legal implications since addresses figure in legal documents like treasury bonds, title deeds, lease agreements and mortgage bonds. Further they are registered with the Central Depositary System dealing with stocks and shares, Inland Revenue and Municipal Assessment Authorities.

Furthermore, renaming roads will not at all be conducive to the promotion of tourism, especially at a time when the country is keen on attracting foreign tourists. The short English names are easily pronounced and remembered by foreign tourists, wherever they come from. Moreover changing names due to some inferiority complex about a colonial past will send the wrong signals even to foreign investors, who might have second thoughts about investing in a country that is obsessed with regressing to a state detrimental to progress as it once did with disastrous consequences. To an intelligent mind, the mood of a nation could be ascertained by something as trivial as a street name change.

Furthermore, people are sentimental beings and changes like this cause residents immense pain of mind. They are very possessive of the places where they live and will not brook outside interference if they can help it. Indeed this is trespass of another kind. If not for their being on the wrong side of the law, they might even go on a spray paint campaign. Moreover nobody in their right mind is going to switch to these new names in preference to the old ones they are used to. And since such names are painfully long, they’ll just be confined to the name boards or municipal council minutes.

As such, it is best at least at this late stage that there be a concerted campaign to impose a moratorium on renaming street names, or better still introduce blanket legislation to revert back to the original street names, which are after all part of our heritage.

Friday, October 30, 2015

All Game

Here’s another extract from my book Accha House & Umma House which deals with our sporty father, Auctioneer Wazir Ghany Hussein of 555 Auctions and his three sons, myself, my twin brother Asgar and our little brother Altaf

   We three merry fellows loved play. We had home for a playpen and one another for constant playmates. Classroom type formal study we looked upon with scorn as there was so much one could do than being cooped up in a room and being drilled on subjects one was not interested in.
   Our school environment little doubt contributed to the attitude, plucked out as we were from that fairy playground called Bishop’s in our tender years and unceremoniously dumped into Mahanama College, a conservative Sinhala Buddhist affair, to have our secondary education Almost everything about the school was drab and boring, from the daily assemblies in the mornings where the boys of all ages had to line up to chant Buddhist stanzas - during which Muslims like us kept silent - and listen to a principal who simply loved to hear his own voice. So utterly boring was the entire culture of the school that it even rubbed off on its extra-curricular activities. Even the Boy Scouts we joined for a few weeks was monotonous as ever with the lady teacher in charge more interested in getting the boys to line up and hold their hands out to see for herself if they had trimmed their nails than instructing them on how to pitch a tent or make a camp fire.
  Little wonder we looked upon our entry to Stafford College, an English medium school located in the plush Cinnamon Gardens Ward of Colombo, from the Eighth Grade, as a welcome change. We were schooled in this country manor like building with a lovely porch that led to a creaky old flight of wooden steps with the air of a haunted house such as one finds in the movies, so different from the imposing yet faceless building that stands in its stead today. Boys in white trousers and girls in blue pinafores added further colour to school life. And they all spoke our language.
  Here was a place where study and play went hand in glove, sometimes even beyond reasonable limits, such as in English literature class. That was when we were reading Wuthering Heights. A naughty classmate named Shane seated next to me drew a sketch he titled Adam’s Apple. It showed the father of man reaching out for the forbidden fruit tantalizingly hanging from a bough of a tree which oddly enough happened to be the testicle of a monkey sitting atop it. The teacher Ms.Fonseka was so aghast on discovering the sacrilegious scrap of paper that she almost lost her head. Cheeee… she started and yelled and screeched at the poor fellow like a banshee, a combined brew of anger and shame contorting her face in full view of the class, for she was a tall graceful woman. The culprit looked on sheepishly as she berated him mercilessly.
  We loved sport, but only those that gave us the greatest thrill. Cricket, father’s favourite sport, which he tried to foist on us, was a different ball game altogether. Indeed so infatuated was he with the game that he named us after cricketers, me being named after that dashing cricketer from the subcontinent Asif Iqbal. Though we liked playing softball cricket with our friends, we certainly did not share his keenness for the organized game with leather ball grown-ups used to play. Even today I fail to see why grown-up men should, in front of thousands of cheering spectators including women, go chasing after a ball if they already had a couple. It is understandable if Hitler loved it as he is said to have had only one. As a well known song sung by British Tommies to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March went:

                                Hitler has only got one ball
Goering has two but very small
Himmler’s is somewhat similar
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all

   Father thought otherwise. He dragged us to regular cricket classes in the hope that at least one of us would emerge a top gun. Needless to say, the grueling practices in the sultry afternoons, with the sun beating down on one like a cop’s baton was no fun. Batting and bowling practices came only once in a while since all had to do their turn, while on the field it was still worse when all that was expected of us was fielding like numbskulls under the blistering sun. We were far too hyperactive for this kind of thing and it told in our negative attitude towards the game.
   Father got us the finest coaches of the day. First it was Dooland Buultjens, a seasoned cricketer and top umpire at the Nomad’s Grounds opposite Victoria Park where the Nelum Pokuna Arts Centre now stands; then it was Muttiah Devaraj, father’s good friend and one-time cricket captain of Zahira College at the Oval Grounds, now more commonly known as P.Saravanamuttu Stadium; and thereafter it was Ranil Abeynaike, a first class Ceylon Cricketer, at the Sinhalese Sports Club.  So utterly boring were these practice sessions that I don’t remember much about them, but for a few interesting incidents that for some reason clung on to my memory. Our Nomads days stand out for two incidents I recall to this day. One was when our coach, an oft-swearing, balding, mustachioed Burgher gentleman named Buultjens. At our very first practice session, the man inquired whether we were wearing ball guards, those unmanly V-shaped plastic props fit only for pussies batsmen were supposed to wear to guard their balls. Despite our replying in the affirmative, he did not take our word for it and coming over pulled our shorts forward from the topmost elastic band to satisfy himself that we were indeed equipped with the gear. We sure were and he took our word from that day onwards.
   Another was when we lost our cricketing gear. Father was furious. This was too much for him to bear. While driving us home he stopped at a cane shop in Slave Island or thereabouts and having returned home he rushed in before any of us and stationed himself at the doorway. As we came in he gave us each a whack on our butts. It was the first occasion he ever caned us. It was also the last.
  Softball cricket we played in the evenings with bats and rubber balls that came in a variety of colours, usually red. Anushal, mother’s cousin who was almost our age and who lived next door joined the three of us, making a foursome and so there we were playing the game, either in his spacious front garden or in the lane behind our house that opened out to Turret Road, much to the annoyance of our neighbours like the fair but irritable Doctor Cader and Tissa, the tall, balding caretaker of the Carmen Gunasekera Montessori. The ball sometimes went over to their well-kept gardens and we would clamber over the parapet wall to retrieve it, often disturbing the foliage. Sometimes when the good doctor irked by our constant annoyance refused to toss the ball over, we would burst out loud:

Doctor Cader, the Proctor’s father
Doctor Cader, the Proctors father

  Tissa too found us to be a constant thorn, but only because he had the added burden of tossing the ball over to us. Though his garden was well kept, the ball often found its way to the dense clumps of yellow bamboos closer to the lane which, like his bald head, did not need much tending.
    Being of a bellicose spirit, we also took to more aggressive combat sport, from which father too got a kick. First it was karate. We were only about six or seven years when we enrolled in Grandmaster Bonnie Roberts classes conducted at the Girls Friendly Society where father also had his auctions. Our trainer, a whiskered, ruddy looking man from the eastern town of Kalmunai was a good martial artist in the best Japanese tradition and we would often hear the floorboards of the hall resonate with a thud as grown-ups were thrown about. We would have too had not our parents put a stop to it within a a couple of months, fearing perhaps that one black-belted brat in the brood might get too hot to handle.
    A couple of years later father caught the boxing bug and passed it on to us, especially to Asgar and me, who being of the same age, could, equipped with boxing gloves, afford to trade punches without any scruples. A favourite punch father loved was what he called the ‘upper cut’, a vertical rising punch to the opponent’s chin. We could not go on pummeling one another indefinitely and so father got us a great punching bag, which suspended from above, would swing to and fro, while we let go, punching it left, right and centre. Father was so besotted with the sport that it seemed at one time even to supersede his love for cricket. His favourite boxing hero was Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion from Louisville, Kentucky who had become a Muslim and even given up his earlier name of Cassius Clay for a more Muslim sounding name. He often used to describe how Ali would tire his opponent by his fancy footwork before delivering the knockout for which he used the slogan fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Although father was no avid reader, I remember this compendious yellow-jacketed book, a pictorial history of boxing profusely illustrated sitting near the head of his bed. It traced the bloody beginnings of the sport from pugilism, its now obsolete predecessor where the contestants fought one another bare-knuckled without boxing gloves to cushion the impact.
   Father, the fitness freak he was, or perhaps because he missed out on the horse races he loved so much, also took us outdoors to run against one another, presenting the winner a trifling gift of money or sometimes a mere pat on the head. If in the mornings, this was at the Galle Face Green, which was then even less green than today. He would get the three of us into his car and drive us to the spot. We would take up our positions towards the northern end nearer the old English cannons, keeping close to the promenade, and upon father’s hand signal, would run as fast as we could southward toward him. These were not very long runs as we had to see father’s upraised hand quickly moving downwards before we could take off. Had he placed himself at the starting point and said get ready, set, go! he would not have been able to see the winner. He had to be physically present at the finishing line, which was where he was, he himself being the finishing line, so to say. If in the evenings it was at the sports ground at independence Square which unlike Galle Face had a circular track and meant longer runs. It was in the course of one such race that I was suddenly seized with a burst of energy somewhat midway, which came like a rush of wind. Within a matter of seconds it drove me to victory. Father was thrilled and when I told him how I felt like Six Million Dollar Man when I got that sudden boost he remarked that I had something called stamina, whatever that meant.
   Father could not content himself with our outracing one another. Competition was most welcome and it came in the form of mother’s cousin Chamira who visited during the holidays. A village lad who had grown up in Matara, he romped to victory, only to be handsomely rewarded with cash by father. He once brought home a tin of condensed milk, tin-kiri, with which mother treated us all to a delicious pudding of her own making like the old song goes:

You find the milk and I’ll find the flour
And we’ll have a pudding in half an hour

   We also devised a number of warlike outdoor games. During our Oval days when we were coached by father’s good friend and Schoolmate, Muttiah Devaraj, we would, at the end of the practice or during a break or two, go over to the surrounding area overrun with weeds. There we would pluck these stalks of wild fountain grass that terminated in a cluster of prickly little balls that stuck on to one’s clothing like a leech. Returning home with a considerable stockpile, we would tarry until evening when we would use them as darts in a game of hot pursuit around the neighbourhood, where hiding or lying in ambush in the dark, or simply facing off in a frontal attack, we would hurl the darts at one another, the victor being he who flung the first dart that stuck on to his opponent’s clothing. Another game we played was by forming our fingers into a catapault. That was by placing on the tips of thumb and forefinger a couple of rubber bands, one linked to the other by a knot. With it we would shoot little V-shaped projectiles made by folding square or rectangular pieces of cardboard and bending these into two. They went quite a distance and hurt when they hit.
  We also enjoyed playing board games with dice and counters whenever we had resident visitors at Accha House such as mother’s little cousins Chammi and Anushi. There was Snakes & Ladders, Ludo and a somewhat similar board game called Super Track which came with our Superman Giant Games Book, an old bumper issue containing a story about Superman thrashing a hobo and a few board games that probably dated back to the 1960s but had somehow fallen to our hands perhaps as a result of the auctions. The game called for four players representing Superman, his close friend Jimmy Olsen and his arch foes, the baldheads Luthor and Brainiac.
   At Umma House it was usually cards played with uncle Fazly and aunt Shanaz, the younger and more playful members of our paternal Ghany clan. The game they taught us was called War, which went down well with our bellicose spirit. It involved shuffling the pack of cards and distributing it around between two to four players, each of whom would reveal the topmost card in his stack, the player with the highest value taking it all and adding these to his lot. If at least two of the cards being the highest were of equal value, the players would go to ‘war’, each laying down four cards and the one with the highest aggregate taking the rest for himself, it being understood that besides the usual numbers of 1 to 10, Jack was 11, Queen 12, King 13 and Ace 14. The game was played till a player collected all the cards to win the war.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Holidaying in the hills by Asiff Hussein

   Holidays come but once a while; but when they do, they simply refuse to go, for they cling on to one’s memory as if they have nowhere else to go, so that even in later times one could always relive those happy days that stand out so clearly from the rest that the mists of time have befogged and are but a haze. No truer can this be than the holidays one spends in the hills, amidst natural piles, heaps and mounds that soaring high like colossal cones peak hither and thither and seem to know no horizon, hemming in one’s memories as they do their surroundings.
   Some of the happiest days of our childhood we spent holidaying in the hill country, in the midst of mountain fastnesses the Sinhalese of old called giri-durga ‘Rocky Fortification’. The mountains were, after all, an almost impregnable natural barrier that made foreign forays into the Kandyan Kingdom, the last independent Sinhalese kingdom, an extremely difficult one, which is the very reason why the jealously independent highlanders were able to hold out against the might of three European colonial powers well upto 1815, when it fell to the British, not due to the superior arms of the Imperial Raj, but because of the internal intrigues of the Kandyan chiefs.
   Although my twin brother Asgar and I were highlanders by birth as we were born in Kandy and even spent the earliest part of our lives there, we would soon grow to be strangers to our natal land and eventually come to look upon it as an exotic place, rather enchanting really, like the cold countryside of a Hesperian fable, encompassed by virgin hills draped in sylvan raiment and caressed only by that whitish nebulous ether we called mist that seemed so strange and outlandish; a far cry from the tropical urban jungle that was Colombo where we spent the greater part of our childhood.
   Little wonder that our adventurous little family looked upon the central highlands as a getaway from it all, a cooling bower for a sultry summer. It certainly did not disappoint us, especially the spot we resorted to most – Nuwara Eliya, a peaceful little town nestled in the hills of a rugged country known to the Sinhalese of old as Kanda-uda-Rata ‘The Country on top of the Hills’, a name perhaps more suited for a fictitious tale set in some celestial realm beyond the clouds than the sun-kissed tropical island we lived in. This picturesque little town sat comfortably perched like a gigantic eagle’s nest on a mountain top, upon a huge, rather flat table-land that could only be reached by driving cautiously on long winding serpentine roads that traversed precipitous hillsides, vigilantly navigating countless hair-pin bends sculpted into the crowns of soaring mountains; mountain after mountain till the rugged terrain carpeted here and there with patchworks of almost every imaginable tinge of green gave way to a vista of rolling hills densely clothed with tea bushes before lending itself to be groomed and garbed with the vestments of what men call civilization.
   Nuwara Eliya was arguably the fastest developed metropolis in the country. Lost to the world and quietly reposing in an uninhabited tract of land visited occasionally only by hunters looking out for elks or sambhur, it was accidently discovered by a shooting party in 1828 during the governership of Sir Edward Barnes. Impressed with its cool climate which no doubt would have reminded him of his English countryside, this far-sighted British Governor of Ceylon decided to convert it into a sanitarium for sick British soldiers. Within a century or so, the spot, with its scenic Lake Gregory and other breathtaking natural features had been transformed into a typically European landscape with pinus trees and country houses in typical English style dominating the architecture. Little wonder then that it came to be known as ‘Little England’ to locals, a name perhaps originally bestowed by Englishmen who would have looked upon the spot as a home away from home.
   Our earliest visit to the place was when I was four years old. That was when father’s friend and regular auction customer Sena Kavikara offered us his bungalow complete with caretaker for a holiday stay. We we were soon on our way to the hills muffled in some sweaters mother had sewn out of flannel, blue with pink collar for me and Asgar and pink with blue collar for little brother Altaf. This old country style house in Glenfall Road even had an apple tree growing in its garden which the caretaker warned mother not to let us approach, inspired perhaps by the biblical story of our first parents. Of our stay there, I can recall only a few incidents and that too faintly. For instance, being huddled around mother on the side steps of the house one evening while she regaled us with a pretty tale like Cinderella, Goldilocks or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from a little book she had brought along with her.
  One day we found that the caretaker, inspired again perhaps by the biblical story of our first parents fall from grace at the whims of a serpent, had killed a snake and was burning it in a bonfire he had formed of the dead leaves and twigs from the garden. This somehow excited our curiosity and we would learn later that burning dead snakes was necessary to prevent other snakes being attracted to the spot, it being the general belief that these snakes arrive on the scene to avenge the death of their fallen fellow. The belief had a scientific basis nevertheless, for serpents, even dead ones, are known to emit powerful scents known as pheromones which attract their kind of the opposite sex to the spot though the object of their desire lies lifeless. 
   Also memorable were the pear trees serving as hedges, the light green fruits of which mother would point to us as our car passed by. These famed pears, little doubt the descendants of those introduced by English planters a century or more ago, would, within a decade or so, disappear from Nuwara Eliya’s home gardens, the result, it is believed of some fungal rot that came riding on the wings of the 1978 cyclone, wiping out the entire lot, just like the coffee blight a century earlier had destroyed the region’s thriving coffee plantations.
   The results of this earlier blight we could see around us in the vast tea estates that had taken the place of coffee. Tea certainly did better than the bitter berry and put Ceylon on the world map once again. Few could do without tea, especially Englishmen. And so there we were with the same old bushes of tea surrounding us whenever we rode up hill country. Mother would explain to us that it was only two leaves and a little bud that was used for making the black tea our country was so famous for and we would lend her our ears rather half-heartedly.
   One night while driving upcountry mother looked up and saw a flare in the heavens; it was a shooting star streaking across the dark sky, and she quickly pointed it out, but we could not as much as catch a glimpse of it. Even if we had it would not have impressed us. She could have at least spiced it up a bit, like telling us that hoary old Arabian belief held that these were the stones by which the angels pelted the jinn who had eavesdropped on the conversations the heavenly hosts were having on the fates of men. But nay, she had not yet mastered the art of winning our hearts. She seemed to be so obsessed with tea and other such trivia we had absolutely no interest in.
   There were certainly much more interesting topics to talk about when on an adventure like this. For instance about the famous outlaw Saradiel whose mountainous hideout of Utuvankanda or Castle Rock near Kegalle father would point out to us while on the road to Nuwara Eliya, informing us that they called him Ceylon’s Robin Hood because he waylaid the wealthy and distributed the loot to the needy. “Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Is that a good thing or a bad thing ?  he would ask us. Now, that was a difficult question to answer and so we kept mum, leaving dad to brood over it.
   Little did we know it then, but Saradiel’s victims were Moorish merchants plying uphill and downhill in their caravans loaded with merchandise. Strangely, his accomplice Mammalay Marikkar who assisted him in his banditry was also a Moor. The British, staunch enforcers of law and order in the tradition of the Sheriff of Nottingham eventually tracked them down and hanged them at Gallows Hill in Kandy. The local Robin Hood was perhaps no match for the famous English outlaw of Sherwood Forest, whom he is often compared with, but like him lived on in folk memory well after his death, his exploits being told with such relish and flourish by storytellers that one would imagine he were a virile muscular hero in the manner of Hercules or Conan. The real Saradiel in contrast was a rather lean effeminate-looking man - strange indeed for one who leeched off others.
   Talking of leeches, we had plenty of them in Nuwara Eliya. The little saradiels swarmed in the glades of certain parts of the town, especially in its outskirts, lying in wait till an unsuspecting stranger rich in red gold came their way, whereupon they would, somersaulting stealthily, fall upon him. We would take care to evade the bloodsuckers by treading ever so briskly or scurrying over the blades of grass or undergrowth they had made their hideout. The villains had made their presence felt to us rather early in our visits to the place for I remember an occasion when mother once ordered me to put my leech-infested foot into a potty in a house we were staying in, pouring over it some eau de cologne, lime juice or salt to dislodge the blighter.
   Stories of the little terrors gorging themselves on human blood to their heart’s content till they dropped off, fully sated, the size of a rubber ball, did not make it any easier to allay the lingering fear we would sometimes be seized with when traversing leech-infested territory. Fortunately for us the bloodsuckers did not frequent the more central parts of town where the human population was denser and the wet undergrowth in which they thrived sparser.Nay, here grew taller trees less conducive to their way of life; pinus, cypress and eucalyptus that perfumed the cold air with their mentholated fragrance amidst old English style Tudorbethan houses with gabled roofs and bow and dormer windows. This was no leech country, but one more attuned for an English spring with carefully kept gardens decked with blooms of various hues. Man was master here and he intended to keep it that way.
   With time, our visits to Nuwara Eliya became more frequent, especially during the April holidays, the season when Colombo’s elite deserted the sun-beaten city with its heat and humidity and beat a hasty retreat to the colder climes of Little England like the colonials of an earlier age did in times like these. Cold it was no doubt, so much so that whenever we went outdoors and huffed and puffed into the heavy air, we could see little gusts of mist-like cold air emerging from our lips, though there were occasions we had to muff our little hands in woolen mittens as the prickly cold almost numbed our fingers, though this was very likely on some very chilly December morn than a more temperate April day.
  But there was an added draw. Nuwara Eliya had by the early 1980s emerged as a popular horse racing destination in the tradition of Ascot in England and father lost no time in throwing in his lot with the Turf Club that had revived it in 1981, taking a number of its stables and filling them with a dark handsome horse and a pack of demure brown ponies. Not that there was any money to be made in it. It was all about winning cups and boasting about it for a year. Father’s interest in the sport of kings was prompted not just by the opportunity it gave him to hobnob with the local landed elite who owned horses or patronized the sport, but perhaps also a desire, born out of sentiment to revive the faded glory that was once his family’s before an earlier regime, roused by nationalist and socialist fervour, clamped down on the sport due to its obvious colonial associations.  The last horse race held in Nuwara Eliya had been a decade earlier, in 1971, following a series of measures the government of the day took to kill the sport including a ban on horse imports in 1965. The acquisition of land belonging to the Colombo Racing Course for the Colombo Campus were among other measures that effectively killed the King’s Sport in the country.
  And so there we were in the horse racing season which happily coincided with the April vacation, lodging in holiday homes, visiting the stables and walking the turf of the racing course. One of the earliest such chalets we stayed in was called The Prairie in whose spacious lawn we would, at eventide, shoot up a toy helicopter one of us received as a gift. Strolling around, we could not help but notice the distinct vegetation of these colder climes like the neat rows of blue-green cabbages growing in hillside gardens.
  When indoors, it was reading that kept us occupied and one such book I recall taking along with me was Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure which told the story of a bunch of kids Jack, Phillip, Dinah and Lucy-Ann on holiday in the Scottish highlands who solved the mystery of a castle perched high up in the mountains. The book made wonderful reading, given the mountainous setting of the story with its grand castellated rock, especially in a place like Nuwara Eliya nestled high up in the hills, so much so that there were times I would be lost in thought wishing I was there with that adventurous foursome, perhaps even as one of them.
   Nuwara Eliya was however no place for mysteries, though a scene we came across almost seemed like one. That was when, one fine morning, while strolling to the Turf Club we came across a large number of dead serpents, a foot or two in length but no bigger, lying on the road or wayside, some with belly turned up and others as if crushed lightly. How they had perished I cannot say though looking back I reason that some would have been run over by vehicles and others trampled by heavy boots or perhaps the hoofs of horses. Back then though it was almost like a mystery to us; so many dead in one day, or rather night; now that was reason for suspicion. Had we cared to delve a bit deeper we may have revealed a killer on the prowl, an aspiring Jack the Ripper perhaps, starting with the smaller victims as many mass murderers do.
  The stables where our hoofed friends were housed we also visited on occasion. The horse, a thoroughbred of an almost black colour was a rather tall sturdy fellow who seemed to have this bad habit of looking down on us. The steed, originally called Sita Jaya was renamed Diasis by father after the famous American racehorse of that name. Asgar had suggested the name Black Bullet and father quite impressed with it even seriously considered using it. He had purchased the horse from millionaire industrialist Upali Wijewardane, it is said for a song as the magnate, in order to encourage the sport here, imported horses and sold them at ridiculously low prices for any takers. He nevertheless kept the best for himself, including among others Kandos Man, Cornwall Garden and King of Zulu who won many a race.
  The more demure brown ponies including one named Alties Girl after little brother Altaf were not as impressive but were nevertheless a thoroughly spoilt lot. One, perhaps a health freak, even refused to eat a carrot it had seen falling on to the ground when one of us kids attempted to feed it for the first time, obviously with trembling hands. The finicky fellow would not as much as take a nibble however much we tried to pass it down its throat. Animals too could be conscious of their health.
   Father could obviously not afford to lodge his ponies in the stables at Nuwara Eliya for long, and so when the racing season was over, he would have them banished to his seaside resort, Sihina Beach Village where they would entertain his foreign guests offering them rides on their backs, accompanied by our regular jockey Farook. A humble, small-made fellow with a swarthy complexion and an odd squint, Farook was the son of the family horsekeeper Ramalan who had so faithfully served our great grandmother Rukiya in her horse-riding school. In keeping with family tradition, he served father well and wished we would also have him, for I remember the usually jocund chap seeming rather sentimental one night after having accompanied us into a cabana in Kosgoda where we were to stay during a vacation, inquiring whether we would look after him the way father did when we grew up.
   And when the big day came it was one grand show at the circular race course. We could see from the stand the sleek swift-footed steeds racing against one another, till, taking the curve, they disappeared into the distance, only to make their appearance once more while the crowds cheered. Most of the races, needless to say, were won by the steeds owned by Upali Wijewardene, though there were occasions when our Diasis came close to the cup.
   However, galloping to glory on a horse was no easy task as father would find out. Upali, a tycoon whose vast business empire included aviation, chocolates and newspapers and who had been instrumental in reviving horse racing in the country mysteriously disappeared when the Learjet in he was traveling went missing in early 1983 somewhere off the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. With him the sport lost its greatest benefactor. The dull economic climate that followed in the wake of the ethnic riots in mid-1983 only made matters worse. This was further complicated by the disappointing performance of Sihina Beach Village which was going from bad to worse as tourist arrivals plummeted due to the terrorist threat that followed in the wake of the riots.
   Father, seeing the writing on the wall, quickly gave up on his equestrian antics, selling or gifting his steed and ponies and calling it quits. It had cost him dear and never again would he entertain the idea of owning a horse or a pony for that matter.

Extracted from Accha House & Umma House. A Mixed childhood in Sri Lanka by Asiff Hussein