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