|Nation June 12 2011|
Part 2 of Tissa Devendra’s Quest for Shangri-La
Tissa Devendra was an interested observer at an International Conference on The Portuguese Encounter. He tells about it in his Diversions (page 125): Encountering Portuguese Names, and in his next tale: Something Rich and Very Strange. I’m holding back the ‘Encounter’ for a moment, because Tissa has taken some pains to tell us of – guess what? – that all¬-too-familiar insect pest, the Karapoththa!
‘I was reading an old travel book about Brazil,’ he says, ‘and I discovered that fro the local Portuguese, this pest was Carpatos. I fired off a query to the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) that had published something about this in its journal. I wanted to know whether we in Ceylon had no karapoththas until the Portuguese came here 500 years ago in their vermin-infested wooden ships and ‘gifted us’ these pests and their word for them. Or did they never have such pests till they landed here and took the creatures and the Sinhala word for them back to Brazil?
‘The RAS had many scholars who knew much about the Portuguese language, but there was no response. No etymologist made reply either until a Sinhalese scholar, Professor Vinnie Vitharana said that we did have cockroaches here before 1505 and we called them deliyo. But why and when did we start calling them karapoththas? He never knew and could not imagine how the name went to Brazil unless there was some Iberian connection.
Tissa is still trying to sort this out and adds: ‘If the cockroaches came with the Portuguese in 1505, we have yet another grudge to curse them with!’
Coming back to names, that 2005 conference was prevailed on by scholars who still carried Portuguese surnames that their forefathers had adopted five centuries ago. Tissa regrets that there was no paper presented that gave reasons for the wide prevalence of Portuguese family names among the Sinhalese of the south-west maritime region. In fact, a Brazilian friend was astonished to find so many such names and said that most of them seemed to come from Portuguese Jews who had bolted to the colonies to escape discrimination at home.
Silvas, Pereras and Mendis’
Let’s put this into quick mode, shall we... How come our Silvas, Pereras. Mendis’s, etc., are all Buddhists. In Goa, Pintos and De Souzas are Catholic. Our people also stuck to the Portuguese honorific, Don for men and Dona for women. We had Don Baron Jayatilaka and Don Stephen Senanayake. Tissa says that his grandfather and all the sons were also Dons.
He gives us a cutting from a Telecom Directory, full of Portuguese surnames as well as a picture of lace-making – a cultural heritage left behind by the Portuguese. The women wear typical jackets of Portuguese fashion that prevailed in that era.
When the Dutch barged in there was another stir, for no Sinhalese was allowed to adopt Dutch names. Soon, the Sinhalese with Portuguese names began to reject any suggestion that they were of Portuguese ancestry. It was a name-game of sorts. There was more nonsense when the British moved in and we began naming our sons after British Governors, government-agents, British politicians, poets, and even in the early 1930s thought they had great children they named after Benito Mussolini and Hitler.
In Jaffna the Hindu Tamils resisted Portuguese names but there were adaptations of Christian names, giving us Jesu-thasan, Maria-thasan and Saveri (Xavier) – muttu. When the American missionaries came in the late 19th century, there was, for some Hindus, a rush to convert and take the names of their Godfathers. We then had Handy, Mather, Crossette, Watson, even Shakespeare!
Tissa tells us that the British rulers liked the spelling ‘oo’ to indicate a specific Sinhala sound. We have the old estate La-boo-kelle and family names such as G-oo-newardene and G-oo-netilleke with the ‘e’ ending in wardene, tilleke, naike, etc. Many of these families tended to be Christian since the Brits favoured competent natives of that faith. However, by the 20th century families began the New Spelling of the Brits who dumped the ‘oo’ and used the ‘u’. Soon the English directories were full of G-u¬newardena and G-u-natilaka with the endings in ‘a.’
To the Portuguese there arose caste, creed and colour. Our English Sinhalese twisted the alphabet to make it a caste-marker. While the Portuguese had Perez, we got onto ‘Pie’ris, ‘Pei’ris, ‘Pei’ries and ‘Pee’ris. The Portuguese Sous(z)a was adapted as Soysa. The Sinhalese also hyphenated names as an unmistakable caste-marker – such as Dias Bandaranaike.
The Burghers then fought a rear-guard action, using the non-Sinhalese letters F and Z. They changed Perera into Pere-i-ra, telling of their European ancestry. At times they even dropped the P and used the F and became Burgher F-ere-i-ras. When the Sinhalese-Portuguese descendent spelt his name Da Silva, he was using the same as the name of the Brazilian President, Lula Da Silva The Burghers used the Z and W making the Z-il-w-as and De Z-il-w-as.
Tissa also tells of one amusmg transformation where the Scottish “McCloud was spelt Ma-ek-la-wood’.
In his story, Frocks, Clogs and Rompers (page 132) we are told of the traumatised villagers of Kebittigowella and Seruwila – where he had worked – where women wore frocks, knee-length, shapeless and of cotton. Yet, long ago these same women wore the Redda-hattay at home, the Osariya to the temple and the Diya-Redda when bathing. In the Rajarata he tells of the Diga-Kamisa – ankle-length cassock-like garments worn by the boys in the village school. They wore no shoes and played boisterous games with their Diga-Kamisa tucked waist-high.
Then came the saree. At first, such sarees were kept to be worn only at weddings and conventions, and the wearers would soon go back to their usual skirts, salwas, denims, while the elders put on their Dubai-Gavum or Laesthi-Gavum,
It was Tissa’s father who told how the Anagarika Dharmapala – a resolute nationalist - waged a war against such dresses of colonialism. He called it a disgraceful aping of 16th century Portuguese dress and even compelled his mother to discard her Saaya and wear the Kandyan Osariya. Yet, in the low county the women rook to long flowing skirts – but the Anagarika’ s message came across and soon the saree dominated the fashion scene. However it wasn’t long before the Indian saree began to fill low country wardrobes. The Anagarika was not happy, but in the Pettah, Sindhi and Gujarati merchants brought in the Indian sarees to be eagerly snapped up.
All this brought in various saree styles. In Panadura and Moratuwa the saree fall was drawn over the back of the head. This is now long forgotten. Muslim women wore the saree steadfastly with the fall to cover all their hair. Today they wear Hijabs. In the 1920-30s the temple artist M. Sarlis, enlivened the viharas with colourful portraits and these were popularized by W. E. Bastian. Soon many old houses had their living rooms honoured by paintings of queens, princesses and devas, draped in modest sarees so unlike the revealing stuff from India.
Badge of distinction
We find the saree becoming a badge of distinction. The lady of the house wore it, while the Ayah and Kussiamma wore the Redda-Hattay. But even this began to crumble by the 1950s when the ‘Veevin’ (Rural Handloom Centres) took in village girls who were termed Working Girls, dressed in frocks; and all over became full-frock Factory Girls. With the exodus to the Middle East, Dubai-Gavum, Bhai-Suits and Hijabs became the wear of housemaids.
What would we call our national dress? Tissa suggests that Sinhala Buddhist peasants never did have a tradition-bound or religiously-ordained national costume. They wore anything that was appropriate. Even today one can worship in whatever one wears if it is modest. It would have been the Anagarika who insisted on the wearing of white to the temple, but we have one of Keyt’s early works: Worshippers at the Dalada Maligawa, that shows women in many-coloured sarees.
Today, as Tissa says, our streets, even jungle trails carry an infinite variety of frocks, school uniforms, Dubai-Gavums, minis, dresses that are flared, flounced, hip-hugging, saucily split. Yes, the frock struck back!
We have also had clogs – wooden slippers that resounded in Ceylon homes in the World War Two years. No one knew how they appeared, then disappeared. The town dwellers of Ceylon would pound the streets in clogs. It was the war effort that took our rubber and the shoe-and-slipper makers demand for rubber could not be met. It meant flat wooden rubberless slippers – and then came the ‘Issato’ wooden clogs trademarked by a Mr. Issadeen of the Pettah. There were large masculine designs for men, slimmer stylish clogs for ladies and dinky versions for children.
Tissa tells of his brief life in Kandy’s Dharmaja College where the boarders wore clogs to school. Their massed entry in thundering clogs drowned all other sound. ‘It was like the Charge of the Light Brigade,’ he says. ‘The Principal then announced a ban on clogs and that was that.
Corning to a fashion scene, he then tells of children’s clothes, when newspapers and British women’s journals told of ruffled silky suits for Page Boys and crinolines for Flower Girls. Tissa’s family portraits show the home-made garments they wore, called the Romper. This was a one piece garment buttoned up at the back. Ayahs called it the Jungee. He, as a child, wore it until he qualified for shorts and they were a vital element of his faraway childhood.
Let’s break away to consider Dona Catherina, shall we? Readers will find this Diversion on Page 143. As you can see, the word Dona takes us back to the Portuguese. The father, Karalliadde Bandara, fled to the Portuguese with his infant daughter to escape internecine slaughter in Kandy. The Portuguese realised that they had a ‘Crown Jewel’ in their hands - a potential heiress to the Kandyan throne.
They planned to make of this infant another Don Juan Dharmapala. She would gift the Kandyan Kingdom to them. The child, who was Kusumasana Devi, was then unethically baptized and named Dona Catherina. She was then entrusted to the nuns but none knew that she was destined to marry two ‘heathen’ princes.
Long before the coming of the Portuguese in 1505, Lanka’s kings were proudly bejewelled, but went topless in bare-chested glory. Dona Catherina of Portuguese taste was offended by the sight. She needed the support of her royal husband, Vimala Dharma Suriya. There was also Konappu Bandara who the Portuguese had baptized, calling him Don Juan of Austria. (Why Austria?) But given the opportunity he abandoned the Portuguese, rallied the Sinhalese, defeated the Portuguese army invading Kandy, seized the teen-aged Dona Catherina and crowned her puppet queen of Sinhale. In any event, both carried a lot of the Portuguese characteristics, possibly even speaking Portuguese to each other.
Dona Catherina began to cover up the bare chests of Kandyan nobility if only to show the Portuguese that the Sinhalese were not half-naked barbarians. She also changed the headgear and redesigned all royal regalia.
As Tissa says, ‘I came to realise that Kandyan dress underwent a change around the 16th century. All this had to be the work of one woman Kusumasana Devi - who was taken to bed by two kings and into the hearts of the people of Sinhale. ‘
Ok... so I told readers earlier of Kan-Kun and Kokis. Can I go on to this Part Three? You see how beautifully this book has been presented. I know also that whether you enjoy (or not) what I give here, there is also a great deal I intend to leave out. My proposed Part Three will bring my own reviews to a close. This is why you must simply take this book into your house, your library, and your bed... any place you can read and reread and know how memories gather and keep gathering in the mind of one of our finest writers.
Nation June 26 2011A final clutch of memoriesReview of Tissa Devendra’s Quest for Shangri-La – Part Three
|As I told readers in Part Two, I will be leaving a lot unsaid, simply because this book has to be read.|
How will it serve to keep writing of all that it contains? I hope to take you that final threesome: Tissa, his Mother, Father, and learn of their first home off Baseline Road, Borella. They had lots of good neighbours as well as a young couple from Japan who were firm friends. I’m carving this up in the best way I can so please don’t think that I am deliberately making omissions.
As Tissa says, they had a lot of Door Stop Shopping. There came the Vattiammas with their vegetables, the fish vendors. The old Kooni-amma with shrimps, a Chinaman with his bundles of silks and laces, the Thrombal-karaya, Bombai-mutai-karaya, and the milk man. There were fast food vendors too, with their lunumiris achcharu and unu-unu pittu and, on certain months in an open playground space, the Sakkali Usaviya where latrine coolies gathered to squat round an old ‘judge’ who pronounced justice on those who had to bear the brunt of pilfering, assault and domestic disputes.
Readers will be told of his mother’s love for gardening, the magnificent zennias she grew that were so impressive that that an artist-friend made an award-winning pastel drawing of the flowers – a picture that still adorns their home seventy-five years later. Tissa also tells of a 1939 musical performance by a white-bearded Rabindranath Tagore who, with a book on his lap sang to a troupe of Indian maidens who dance with supple grace.
It was when schooling came that that the Devendras moved to a new home, nearer Nalanda College. They were four children then and yet another move to Dharmajah Hill, Kandy. No... I wont tell you of the Steroiopticon that when put to use, a box of pictures told of a long-lost world and street scenes of 1897 London. Many moves later, Tissa takes you to the Forbidden Forest of Kandyan Royalty and thereon to Horseshoe Street. He has given us a separate book on this collection of stories – a must buy if you don’t have it already.
Tissa’s father bought his first camera – a German Agfa – and it was when at Dharmarajah College that Tissa was diagnosed as short-sighted and had to wear spectacles. On doing so the boys in his class hooted and even called him Kannadi Polonga – but it was worth it. He could see as never before.
Considering that Dharmarajah was founded by Colonel Olcott, with a student body of mainly Sinhala Buddhists as well as Sindhis, Muslims and Tamils, there still came to the upper kindergarten the exotic George Davies, a yellow-haired Lansi whose father was a forest guard and lived across the road at Uduwattakelle. As war closed in Tissa’s father was appointed Principal of a Ratnapura school. Another move... and Ratnapura was the rainiest of towns, where he travelled by buggy to school in the 1940s. He could not forget Kandy. Seventy years ago he saw the twilight of the Colonial era and remembers the Grass For My Feet author, 1. Vijay-Tunga, who came from Galle.
There is a very interesting – no, fascinating chapter on the Karl Kasmana Caper that I leave for my readers. Let’s say it involved an Estonian cargo ship that had sailed into Colombo Harbour and was impounded. There were Soviet films and books Claudine Libovitsz, an East European blonde, the Red American Rhoda Miller and both deported by Prime Minister Kotelawala.
Moving to Colombo it was the season of the old tram cars in 1946. When, in the 1950s, the Municipality scrapped the trams the last tramcar was decorated with streamers and balloons on its last haul to Grandpass with a hired Kotahena Band belting out the Funeral March.
He tells of the streets of his childhood memories, porticos to shelter people running in from the rain and how he accompanied his father to ‘keep an eye’ on the filming of Elephant Walk at Sigiriya. Since his father was then Assistant Archaeological Commissioner, they stayed at the Circuit Bungalow and spent evenings at the Takaran-roofed rest-house. You must read about it all especially when they took Vivien Leigh to Anuradhapura. Not long later she abandoned the film and flew back to London – and Elizabeth Taylor was spliced into the film.
And so to Galle where Tissa was a District Land Officer. He tells of Fred Brook, an American with a Hasselblad camera and of encounters with super swamis who broke every rule to take villages for everything they offered – food, money, flowers, honey. Trincomalee was in this regards most attractive.
As Government Agent, Jaffna, he was close to Alfred Duraiappah, Mayor, who was a close ally of Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Mrs B’s right-hand man.
Tissa makes no bones about this. When a young Tamil shot Alfred on the Temple steps of the Vishnu kovil. He later knew of the teen-age thug, Prabhakaran who had fled by boat to Tamil Nadu.
Read, of Tissa’s year at Cambridge, 1968-69. It’s worth every word and I’m keeping mum. He also tells of the women of passion, poison and power from the Chronicles of the Mahavamsa, Culavamsa, Rajavaliya and folk songs - their celebrations, festivals, the Sandesa poems, then of the Kokis – or Koekjis as called by the Dutch, and how the Dutch Kak-huis, the outside lavatory, had become the Sinhala Kakkussiya.
You will be told of George Keyt and young Lionel Wendt and how they met another Keyt named Thomas who had forged Keyt’s paintings. He was convicted by the Supreme Court and transported to Penang jail in Malaya in 1865. In 1870 he met George Wendt, also convicted of forgery while in the Ceylon Bank. Both were dispatched to Singapore where they were engaged in building the Governor’s Palace while ringleaders, the Blaze brothers set the prison ablaze to destroy incriminating documents Keyt and Wendt were supposed to have.
It is in his final piece, Quest/or Shangri-La, that Tissa tells of D. H. Lawrence, having discovered that Lawrence lived for some time in Kandy and for a few months in the old bungalow they had occupied near Dharmarajah College. Lawrence came to Ceylon in 1922, but he found Kandy incredibly hot. He did write his beautiful poem, ‘Elephant’ and was an indefatigable letter writer. However, even after a trip to Nuwara Eliya he began to feel upset by Buddhism. Read some of the letters Tissa gives. Lawrence then sailed to Australia, saying that I don’t like Ceylon, not to live in... From West Australia he moved to New South Wales, saying that Australia goes from bad to worse in my eyes... and sailed away.
So now, readers I leave it all to you and say a big thank you to my editors. Too bad that it all had to end... but will it? Tissa is now a flashing, rainbowed cataract of literature. Soon we will. See more and more and so much more!